And a War in the Philippines and Indonesia, too?

News Abroad

Mr. Edgerton is a professor of history at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley and a writer for the History News Service.

The recent airport bombing in Davao, southern Philippines, the latest in a string of terrorist incidents on the island of Mindanao, will raise a hue and cry for more American military aid to the Philippines. We are already training Philippine troops to fight terrorists there, and some 350 American Green Berets have just been deployed to track down Muslim guerrillas on the impoverished island of Jolo.

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Before we send in the Marines, however, let's answer two questions: Is al-Qaida really a threat to the Philippines and the rest of Southeast Asia? Will an increased U.S. military presence solve the problem? Based on historical experience, American-backed militarism will be a greater threat to stability in Southeast Asia than al-Qaida.

Our military history in Southeast Asia goes back not just to Vietnam, but all the way to the Philippine-American War which cost the lives of some 200,000 Filipinos between 1899 and 1902. That war began against Spain. Long after the Spanish and most Filipinos had called it quits, Muslim Filipinos (or Moros as they are called in the Philippines) resisted. Not until 1913, in the ferocious battle of Bud Bagsak on Jolo Island, did General John "Blackjack" Pershing defeat Moro forces, leaving an estimated 300-400 dead.

Today we're fighting Moros in our war against terrorism. In 1913, we fought them in our war for colonial empire. Philippine Moslems might be forgiven for confusing our motives today with those of the past.

The leading terrorist organization on Mindanao, known as the MILF or Moro Islamic Liberation Front, has been on the run for over a year. The principal guerrilla network on Jolo, called Abu Sayyaf or Bearer of the Sword, has resorted to kidnapping tourists for ransom.

Today they need to be policed by Filipinos as thugs and pirates, not singled out by Americans as Osama bin Laden allies.

If Islamic opportunists like MILF and Abu Sayyaf suddenly start attracting widespread popular support, this will happen not because of their tenuous links to al-Qaida. Rather, it will happen because of the American government's return to what Southeast Asians perceive as imperial policies. These include our use of military force reminiscent of American colonial conquest a century ago. They also include our support for unpopular, corrupt, and widely feared militaries in Southeast Asia, at the expense of fragile democracies.

Terrorism in Southeast Asia has more often been associated with local militaries than with Islamic militants. This is certainly true in the Philippines where the military under Ferdinand Marcos (1965-1986) earned a reputation for corruption and "disappearances." That same military repeatedly threatened the presidency of Marcos's successor, Corazon Aquino, and few Filipinos trust it today. But the Philippine military, now being trained by Americans to fight Moslem terrorists, is honest and benign compared to that of another American ally in the region.

In Indonesia the leading terrorist organization, Jemaah Islamiah or Islamic Community, poses less a threat to Indonesian democracy than the country's military, even though JI has been linked to the Bali bombing last October and al-Qaida.

During the New Order years of President Suharto (1965-98), the army exterminated some 200,000 residents of East Timor, one-third of the population, after taking over that former Portuguese colony in the eastern Indonesian archipelago in 1975. Then in 1999, working through paramilitary militias that enlisted army troops in civilian clothes, the military destroyed 70 percent of East Timor's buildings and infrastructure and deported 250,000 East Timorese who had voted for independence.

Under Suharto the Indonesian military also gained a reputation for corruption. It developed a vast web of business interests, paying for some 60 to 65 percent of its operating expenses through off-budget sources such as coffee, logging, and protection rackets.

The Indonesian military, like that of the Philippines, stands to gain from accusations that Southeast Asia has become an incubator for al-Qaida. U.S. military aid already has been boosted because Washington regards these militaries, corrupt or not, as indispensable in the war on terrorism.

By precipitating a military resurgence in Southeast Asia, the U.S. could easily jeopardize human rights, women's rights, and democracy in the region. Most Muslims also fear those three developments from al-Qaida. As of now, all Southeast Asian states with Musim majorities or minorities (Indonesia - 87 percent; Malaysia - 58 percent; the Philippines - 5 percent; Thailand - 4 percent) continue to stand as democracies. In none of these countries do Muslims who want an Islamic state make up more than a tiny percentage. As one Indonesian Muslim has said, "The war against terrorism essentially boils down to a conflict between moderation and extremism."

The United States must not overemphasize the threat posed by al-Qaida in a region where not a single state sponsors Islamic terrorism, and where people don't want al-Qaida cells in their countries any more than we do. At this point, none of the militant Islamic groups in the region has a mass base, despite endemic poverty among Muslim populations there. Whatever we as Americans do in Southeast Asia, let's not reawaken memories of General Pershing and American campaigns against "Moros." Let's leave those sleeping ghosts alone.


This piece was distributed for non-exclusive use by the History News Service, an informal syndicate of professional historians who seek to improve the public's understanding of current events by setting these events in their historical contexts. The article may be republished as long as both the author and the History News Service are clearly credited.

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