As part of its ongoing fight against the separatist movements, the Philippines is testing a counter-terrorist strategy known as “clear, hold and develop” on a small group of islands, Jolo, in the Southernmost of the Philippines.
Jolo town is the capital of Sulu province. The commander of the 3rd Marine Brigade Brigadier-General Juancho Sabban explained that main thrust of the military’s work in Jolo now is to be engaged on community projects to win over the local communities rather than the large military operations in the past.
About 5,000 Philippines soldiers were involved in Operation Ultimatum (launched seven months ago) to clear out Abu Sayyaf and other terrorists from Sulu. The military has succeeded in removing rebels from large areas of Sulu and has also managed to ‘hold’ these areas, preventing the rebels from returning. The next step is for the government to develop these areas to prevent the rebels from recruiting more militants. The US Special Forces are also involved in repairing roads, digging wells and sending out medical teams into remote villages. Commander James Marvin of the US Navy pointed out that, “We want to drive a wedge between the local population and the bad guys.”
On the military front, the government has also changed its tactics in tackling the Abu Sayyaf. In part, due to the fact that offensive military operations have been hampered by the dense jungle, the Philippines military has also shifted its focus from large scale attacks to targeted attacks aimed at the Abu Sayyaf commanders so as to cripple the movement. Nonetheless, there continues to be small skirmishes between the government and rebel forces. For instance, on Monday 13 February 2007, the Philippines government killed 4 suspected rebel members and captured two others in two different encounters in Sulu.
The government seems to be on the right track. Ultimately, the Philippines need to ensure that there is continued economic development in the South to maintain the momentum of its current apparent success. A security analyst Rommel Banlaoi who is an expert on the Abu Sayyaf, said, “The disparities are really bad; the whole of Sulu province needs development assistance to sustain the success of the military operations.”
Even as the Philippines government seems to be slowly winning the fight against the Abu Sayyaf group in Sulu, it does not seem to be doing as well on tackling the issue of political killing. A human rights group, Karapatan listed more than 800 political killings since President Arroyo assumed power in 2001. Those killed included human rights workers, union leaders, journalists and judges. This high number has raised international concerns and a United Nations team led by special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings Philip Alston arrived in the Philippines over the weekend to investigate.
The government’s official task force (comprising of police and military officials), Usig, contested the high figures quoted by the human rights group, Karapatan. Usig claimed that there were only 115 murders of which only 49 remained unresolved. The government statistics list those murders as “solved” once a suspect is identified, rather than when the suspect is successfully prosecuted and convicted. The Chief of Usig, Deputy Director General Avelino Razon Jr., insisted that the figures from Karapatan were inflated and showed that some of the supposed victims were rebels killed by security forces. Some members who were supposedly dead were also subsequently found to be alive.
However, Usig conceded that the retired General Palaran (dubbed “The Butcher” by human rights group) had been involved in extrajudicial killings but asserted that his action was neither sanctioned by state nor armed forces policy. Even as the military seems to have hit on a good strategy in Southern Philippines, it seems that its tactics elsewhere leaves much to be desired. (15 February 2007)
Putting the Squeeze on Abu Sayyaf in Jolo’s Jungles (The Straits Times, 14 February 2007)
Philippines’ Anti-Terror Plan: ‘Clear, Hold and Develop’ Jolo (The Straits Times, 14 February 2007)
PNP Tells UN Prober Slay Figures ‘Bloated’ (Manila Times, 14 February 2007)
Palace Expects UN team to Also Check on Leftist Groups (BusinessWorld, 13 Feburary 2007)
4 Suspected Bandits Killed in Separate Sulu Encounters (Manila Times, 13 February 2007)