More than two years since Moslem insurgents made their first coordinated attacks on government outposts in the southern Philippines, hopes are high that a peaceful settlement may be in sight.
More than two years since Moslem insurgents made their first coordinated attacks on government outposts in the southern Philippines, hopes are high that a peaceful settlement may be in sight. Top Philippine military authorities are optimistic that many Moslem guerrilla leaders will attend peace talks with the country's President, Ferdinand Marcos, in the capital, Manila on Thursday (17 April).
The thirty-month-old guerrilla war is concentrated in the western part of the island of Mindanao -- second largest in the Philippines group -- an the numerous small islands of the Sulu archipelago. The Moslem insurgents have demanded virtual autonomy for the predominantly Moslem islands of Mindanao, Sulu, Basilan and Palawan, and an estimated 3,000 government troops, insurgents and civilians have been killed in the struggle so far.
Moslems total between 2 and 3 million in the Philippines -- about 5 per cent of the country's 42 million strong population. The great majority of them live in the southern half of the large island group. But since the end of the 1960s the Moslems have felt their position within the state increasingly endangered by the growing political strength of the Christian population on Mindanao and its smaller island neighbours.
In January this year, the Moslem demands were formally presented at talks with President Marcos in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, by the leading insurgent group, the Moro National Liberation Front. But the demands involved about one-third of the country's land-mass and one quarter or its population ... and the Government of President Marcos was reluctant to concede any ground.
On Mindanao itself, the town of Cotabato -- once a thriving coastal port for rice, timber and coconut shipments from the island's rich interior -- has become little more than an encampment for refugees from the countryside and a variety of regular government troops, militia irregulars and amnestied rebels now working as para-military groups under government direction and the Central command of General Fortunate Abat. One such former insurgent Abdul Kadir Candao -- who surrendered along with 46 followers earlier this year -- claims to have been trained in guerrilla warfare in the Malaysian region of Sabah ... apparently confirming President Marcos' accusation that the rebels were receiving "foreign aid".
Government troops led by Admiral Romulo Espaldon of Southwest Command, are stretched thinly on Mindanao ... and the situation on the many smaller islands involved in the guerrilla war, is even more difficult for the Government. Helicopter and river patrols encounter surprise attacks among the swamps, narrow channels and dangerous inlets of the archipelago. The situation is reported to be quiet at the moment, but late in March three insurgent leaders were killed and their motor-launch captured after a gun-battle with Government forces, near Basilan island.
Three of the major towns of the area have been captured by insurgents, and sporadic attacks made on Cotabato port. The town of Jolo -- capital of Jolo island in the archipelago -- was burnt to the ground early last year after a strong Moslem insurgent attacks.
Despite the fact that their resources are under pressure, the military commanders for the region are confident that they can over-come the insurgent threat. Unofficial estimates put the rebel numbers at over 16,000 -- less than the Government force in operation in the area -- but they are assisted by the difficult nature of the terrain.
President Marcos has guaranteed safe conduct passes for all the rebel leaders attending the peace talks this week. No official numbers of representatives have been released so far, but military commanders in the field are hopeful that many will attend bringing the hopes of settlement closer than ever before.