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Intimidating the Philippines at its power center

Updated On: Nov 16, 2007

The Philippines is shaken by another bombing – this time at the center of its power.

A powerful bomb ripped through a section of the Philippine House of Representatives, injuring at least six people including two lawmakers and destroying part of the complex's south lobby. 50 of the House's 275 members were inside when the bomb exploded.

There were speculations that this was really an assassination attempt and the target was Muslim legislator Wahab Akbar.  Manila police chief Geary Barias said initial investigation showed the bomb was planted on a motorcycle parked near Akbar's car. "It looks like the congressman was the target of the attack," Barias told reporters. Family friend Sandra Cam said the congressman was directly hit by the blast that tore through the South Wing of the complex, also killing a driver and injuring two other lawmakers.

Akbar, 47, had twice served as governor of Basilan, a jungle-clad southern island used by the Abu Sayyaf as a base from where they launch kidnapping and bombing raids. He had spoken in the past of links with Abubakar Abdurajak Janjalani, an Afghan-trained Islamic firebrand who founded the Abu Sayyaf initially to fight for an independent state in the south. Janjalani was killed in a gunbattle with police in 1998, and Akbar severed ties with the group, later joining mainstream politics. Akbar also had known political enemies in Basilan, where politicians maintain private armies and often engage authorities in attacks. Akbar has been targeted by the Abu Sayyaf Muslim extremist group in the past for launching offensives against them.

This brazen attack occurred just one month after a blast tore through a shopping mall in Manila's financial district, leaving 11 people dead, more than 100 injured and sparking fears of further attacks. Police later claimed that the explosion was an industrial accident. Manila police chief Geary Barias said civil and criminal charges can be filed against those responsible for the basement area in the Glorietta mall. The explosion was likely caused by a mixture of gases in the basement, possibly from a malfunctioning septic tank or a diesel tank, Manila police chief Geary Barias said. Since the blast, however, the Filipino capital has been jittery.

All these explosions at the centre of Manila are cause for concern.  Under President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, political infighting and instability seemed to reign. President Arroyo is now facing a third impeachment attempt.

Even in the war against the communists, the Philippines seems to be slipping of late. The Philippine military has had limited success in destroying the firepower of communist insurgents, putting it way behind the target of wiping out the rebellion by 2010, a classified army report said.  President Arroyo, who is also commander-in-chief, has said she wants the New People's Army (NPA) largely defeated by the time she steps down from power in June 2010. 

But an assessment report seen by Reuters said the military was not winning enough victories against the NPA, which despite the collapse of communism worldwide continues to strike a chord with poor Filipinos angered at widening inequality at home. "Although there were successes in all threat areas, the military was not gaining enough to attain strategic victory at the desired rate," the report on the government's "Bantay Laya", or "Guard Freedom" operation, said.

With its new strategy, "Bantay Laya II", the military is predicting that 80 percent of the NPA's 100 bases will be dismantled by 2010, a tall order given that less than 20 camps have been removed since the beginning of 2002. The army wants to flush the 6,300-member NPA out of around 19 bases in 2007. It removed only 5 in the first half. "If the military continues its operations at the current rate, it is projected that the communist insurgency will be defeated by 2018," the report prepared by the Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Plans said. 

The fight against communists, Islamic insurgents are hampered by many problems in the Filipino military. In its strategic assessment, the military said inadequate resources, particularly a lack of helicopters and transport planes, were a problem when trying to corner rebels living in remote, mountainous areas. The armed forces said its soldiers were distracted by "political adventurism" and their deployment during elections.  The report said that soldiers could not focus on their security roles because they were overburdened with other tasks, unrealistic targets and a lack of funds. At the policy level, the assessment report found the government did not prosecute enough militants and its propaganda was weak. 

Besides the communist, the Filipino authorities is also facing months of impasse in its talks with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). Malaysia is trying to broker the talks between government and the secessionist group through informal talks in Malaysia. Presidential Adviser on Peace Process Jesus Dureza announced the meeting in Kuala Lumpur aims to "firm up" discussions on the contentious issue of ancestral domain, which has stalled the talks. Dureza said he hoped formal talks could resume early next year and an agreement on ancestral domain could be signed.

"We're confident we can move forward beyond the ancestral domain issue," Dureza told reporters in an interview after attending a meeting of the National Security Council Cabinet group in Malacañang. Dureza said the exploratory talks would focus on the possible expansion of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao. However, he clarified that this should be within the framework of the Constitution. (15 November 2007)

Sources:

Philippines slipping in war against communists – report (Reuters, 13 November 2007)

Govt, MILF to start informal talks in Malaysia Wednesday (Inquirer, 13 November 2007)

Philippine congressman dies in bomb blast (Agence France Presse, 13 November 2007)

2 Dead in Bombing at Philippine Congress (Associated Press, 13 November)

Two dead, at least 10 hurt in bomb blast at Philippine Congress (Channelnewsasia, 13 November 2007)

Six hurt in bomb explosion at Philippine Congress (Channelnewsasia, 13 November 2007)

Cambodia's jungle treasure still stuns the senses (Japan Times, 11 November 2007)

Police blame 'negligence' for Philippine mall explosion (Channelnewasia, 31 Oct 2007)