Philippine President Aquino's Dilemma

Philippine President Benigno Aquino’s critics are beginning to pile on over the government’s lack of aggressiveness in going after communist guerillas who attacked mining sites on the island of Mindanao in early October and Islamic fundamentalists who shot up an army unit two weeks later.

However, it is questionable how much action or what the military can do. For instance, when former President Joseph Estrada took on the Moro Islamic Front in the late 1990s, the military used up its entire stock of munitions almost immediately and ended up crippling the national budget because of the need to purchase additional ammunition from Pakistan. The government’s inability to quell the rebels was one of the factors that brought a US military presence back to the Philippines, a presence that continues to this day.

The all-out war ended up taking a full 5 percent out of the overstretched national budget, according to the country risk analysis firm Pacific Strategies & Assessments and wrecked an agreement with the World Bank and International Monetary Fund to limit the national deficit.

Thus, in reality, current budget constraints mean the government probably can’t afford to take on either of the rebel groups in all-out war. Any such full-tilt military action would probably result in financial ruin for the government. As has been proven by decades of continuing skirmishes with both the MILF and the NPA, the army can’t take down the rebels, nor can the rebel groups do enough damage to the military to force any major change in tactics on either side.

Although the government sought to minimize the October attacks by the NPA after first likening them to a “Pearl Harbor, it has since characterized them as “just isolated incidents.” But in fact they did more damage than has the NPA has been able to produce throughout the country in recent years. On Oct.3, as many as 300 New People’s Army guerrillas attacked the compound of the Taganito Mining Corp., briefly taking hostages and burning scores of trucks, excavators and other equipment worth nearly US$70 million. The mine is owned by Nickel Asia Corp., the Philippines’ largest nickel ore producer.

Two days later, the rebels struck again, burning P5 million worth of heavy equipment and other vehicles in the compound of a banana-growing firm, a seeming indication that the communists can attack pretty much wherever they wish in rural areas with impunity. Then, on Oct. 20, the NPA raided the compound of a Japanese agricultural firm, destroying water tankers and generators and putting the compound’s radio facilities out of commission.

Two weeks after that, Moro Islamic Liberation Front rebels attacked an army unit in Basilian Province, killing 19 soldiers.

All of these incidents took place while the government has been involved in preparing for peace talks with both the Communists and the Muslim insurgencies. The attacks have violated cease-fire agreements, bringing the government under considerable heat for what is perceived as a weak and slow response. Aquino was already taking criticism from the Catholic Church for meeting with Al Haj Murad Ibrahim, the chairman of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in Tokyo in August.

But, given budgetary constraints, it appears that the Aquino government’s only option is to continue peace negotiations on both fronts. Aquino has sought to play a nuanced game. Instead of declaring war after the deaths of the 19 soldiers, Aquino said he would pursue “all-out justice,” allowing the military to conduct air strikes against what he characterized as “rogue elements,” an action regarded as symbolic that won’t jeopardize efforts to bring the rebels to the negotiating table. Accordingly, government troops attacked the lair of an MILF commander, Juaning Abdulsalam, in Zamboanga Sibugay Province, killing six guerrillas and losing two soldiers in the process.

Talks with the Communists are due to resume in Norway in late November after breaking down earlier because of demands by the government that the NPA stop demanding protection money from businesses and by the Communists that the government free rebels it holds in prison.

Aquino has continued his commitment to the peace talks with both rebel groups. But it is a delicate balancing act because continuing to withhold military force against them could embolden them both. The NPA, the military wing of the Philippine Communist Party, has long raised its operating funds through “revolutionary taxes.” The scale of the raids on Mindanao may well mean that the communists are about to raise the tax rates to new levels. The real causes of the insurgencies – weak and corrupt governments and an intractable religious conflict – continue without any commitment on the part of Manila to clean them up or, apparently, a real effort on the part of the rebels to seek peace.