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Deadly drones come to the Muslims of the Philippines

7 March 2012 General 28 Comments Email This Post Email This Post

by Akbar Ahmed and Frankie Martin (AlJazeera English)

Washington, DC – Early last month, Tausug villagers on the Southern Philippine island of Jolo heard a buzzing sound not heard before. It is a sound familiar to the people of Waziristan who live along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan, where the United States fights the Taliban. It was the dreaded drone, which arrives from distant and unknown destinations to cause death and destruction. Within minutes, 15 people lay dead and a community plunged into despair, fear and mourning.

The US drone strike, targeting accused leaders in the Abu Sayyaf and Jemaah Islamiyah organisations, marked the first time the weapon has been used in Southeast Asia. The drone has so far been used against Muslim groups and the Tausug are the latest on the list.

Just as in Pakistan and other theatres of the “war on terror”, the strike has provoked controversy, with a Filipino lawmaker condemning the attack as a violation of national sovereignty. This controversy could increase with the recent American announcement that it plans to boost its drone fleet in the Philippines by 30 per cent. The US already has hundreds of troops stationed on Jolo Island, but until now, the Americans have maintained a non-combat “advisory” role.

The expansion of US’ drone war has the potential to further enflame a volatile conflict involving the southern Muslim areas and Manila, which has killed around 120,000 people over the past four decades. To understand what is happening in the Philippines and the US’ role in the conflict, we need to look at the Tausug, among the most populous and dominant of the 13 groups of Muslims in the South Philippines known as “Moro”, a pejorative name given by Spanish colonisers centuries ago.

Sulu Sultanate

For hundreds of years, the Tausug had their own independent kingdom, the Sulu Sultanate, which was established in 1457 and centered in Jolo. The Sultanate became the largest and most influential political power in the Philippines with highly developed trade links across the region. From this base among the Tausug, Islam took root in neighbouring Mindanao Island among the Maguindanao and other groups.

The antagonistic relationship between the Moro periphery and the centre in Manila developed during the Spanish colonial era. The Spanish had arrived not long after expelling the Muslims from Spain and, intoxicated by that historical victory, were determined to exterminate Islam in the region and unite the Philippines under Christian rule.

In the instructions given by the Spanish governor on the eve of the first campaign against the southern Muslims in 1578, he ordered that “there be not among them anymore preachers of the doctrines of Mahoma since it is evil and false” and called for all mosques to be destroyed. The governor’s instructions set the tone for centuries of continuous warfare. The idea of a predatory central authority is deeply embedded in Tausug mythology and psychology.

Of all the Moro groups, the Tausug has been considered the most independent and difficult to conquer, with not a single generation of Tausug experiencing life without war over the past 450 years.

As any anthropologist will testify, the Tausug have survived half a millennium of persecution and attempts at conversion because of their highly developed code and clan structure. It is the classic tribe: egalitarian and feuding clans that unite in the face of the outside enemy and a code which emphasizes honor, revenge, loyalty and hospitality.

It was only in the late 19th century that Spain succeeded in incorporating the Sulu Sultanate as a protectorate and established a military presence on Jolo. The Spanish were followed by American colonisers who could be as brutal as their predecessors. In a 1906 battle, US troops killed as many as 1,000 Tausug men, women and children, and between 500 and 2,000 in a 1913 engagement.

Despite the Moro resistance to US colonial rule, they advocated for either continued American administration or their own country, rather than be incorporated into an independent Philippines, which they believed would continue the policies of the Spanish against their religion and culture. The request, however, was rejected.

‘Special provinces’

Following independence in 1946, the Muslim regions were ruled as “special provinces” with most of the important government posts reserved for Christian Filipinos. Despite being granted electoral representation in the 1950s, the majority of Moro had little interest in dealing with the central government. Manila, for its part, largely neglected the region.

The Tausug areas remained impoverished and, in the absence of jobs, young men turned to looting and piracy. In response, Manila opted for heavy-handed military tactics and based its largest command of security forces in the nation among the Tausug.

Central government actions to subdue the Tausug areas in the 1950s resulted in the deaths of almost all fighting age men in certain regions. The society was torn apart, with the young generation growing up without traditional leadership.

The current conflict began in 1968 with what became known as the Jabidah Massacre, when around 60 mainly Tausug recruits in the Philippine Army were summarily executed after they refused a mission to attack the Malaysian region of Sabah, where a population of Tausug also resides.

In 1971, the Moro, incensed by Jabidah and accusing the central government of conducting “genocide”, began an open war against the state. A Tausug-dominated independence movement soon developed called the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF).  In 1976, the government reached an agreement with the MNLF to grant the Moro areas autonomy, which was further developed in a 1996 treaty that is still being negotiated.

For many Moro living on Mindanao, however, the deal was unsatisfactory because of the presence of so many Christian settlers, who they complained were taking more and more of their land under what seemed like government policy.

Indeed, the population had dramatically changed from 76 per cent Muslim in 1903 to 72.5 per cent Christian by 2000. The government was arming Christian settlers to attack Muslims. In 1971, the most notorious Christian militia, the Ilaga, killed 70 Moro in a mosque. Muslim militias lashed back, leading to a cycle of violence.

A new group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), based in Mindanao’s Maguindanao ethnic group, soon split from the MNLF and vowed to push for secession.

‘Abu Sayyaf’ label

Following the 9/11 attacks, the United States became involved in the region in pursuit of the elusive Abu Sayyaf, which it accused of having links with al-Qaeda. The group was formed by a charismatic Tausug preacher in the late 1980s, whose speeches attracted angry young men from a community rife with orphans due to the previous decades of war.

Abu Sayyaf has been blamed for kidnappings, bombings and beheadings, gripping the Philippines with sensational media reports. Manila has been accused of applying the “Abu Sayyaf” label to any conflict in the region, including those involving small armed Tausug groups, many of them kinship based, which have existed for centuries.

Aid workers kidnapped in 2009, for example, reported that their “Abu Sayyaf” captor told them “I can be ASG (Abu Sayyaf Group), I can be MILF, I can be [MILF or MNLF breakaway group] Lost Command”.

Manila was discovering, like many other nations after 9/11, that by associating its restless communities on the periphery with al-Qaeda, it could garner easy American support.

To resolve the conflict between the Moro and Manila, President Benigno Aquino must demonstrate that the centuries of conflict and forced assimilation into a monolithic Filipino culture are over. The government needs to promote pluralism and build trust with the periphery.

With the recent declarations by President Aquino’s government that the state is fully invested in implementing the 1996 autonomy agreement with the MNLF and hopes to have a peace treaty in place with the MILF by 2013, the various parties have a unique opportunity to work for a longstanding solution.

Development projects to help the suffering Tausug must be conducted urgently as the situation for ordinary people is dire. Amidst the frequent barrages of artillery and bombs and the displacement of hundreds of thousands over the past decade, a 2005 study found that 92 per cent of water sources in Sulu Province, where the majority of Tausug live, were contaminated, while the malnutrition rate for children under five is 50 per cent. Education and employment are constant challenges.

The sad state of affairs does not only result from a lack of funds, as the Philippines government, the United States and others have poured millions into the region, but rather how funds are spent. The association of development with the military among the population has been an impediment to implementing necessary projects.

Mediation needed

Between inefficient aid funding and the ongoing military campaigns, Manila has been drained of desperately needed resources and diverted from fulfilling its ambitions to become an economic powerhouse.

Development solutions can only work if they have the full support of the clans that decide local politics, which is no easy task, considering the tenacity with which clans can fight over resources. Yet with a holistic plan of engagement in the context of true autonomy, it is possible to bring them together.

Mediation, involving local religious leaders and international bodies like the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation, which has taken the lead in peace talks between the Moro factions and the government, can play a key role in this regard.

Major General Reuben Rafael, the Philippine commander formerly in charge of military operations in Sulu Province, gave us an example of how to proceed. In 2007, he staged a public apology for transgressions against the population. The assembled people began to cry, including the Tausug mayor of the town, who stated that never in the history of Sulu had a military general apologized to them in such a manner. This is the way to the heart of the Tausug, and we salute the general for showing us the path to peace.

By unleashing the drones, the US has pushed the conflict between centre and periphery in the Philippines in a dangerous direction. If there is one lesson we can learn from half a millennium of history it is this: weapons destroy flesh and blood, but cannot break the spirit of a people motivated by ideas of honour and justice.

Instead, the US and Manila should work with the Muslims of the Philippines to ensure full rights of identity, development, dignity, human rights and self-determination. Only then will the security situation improve and the Moro permitted to live the prosperous and secure lives they have been denied for so long; and only then will the Philippines be able to become the Asian Tiger it aspires to be.

Professor Akbar Ahmed is Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington DC and the former Pakistani High Commissioner to the United Kingdom.

Frankie Martin is an Ibn Khaldun Chair Research Fellow at American University’s School of International Service and is assisting Professor Ahmed on Ahmed’s forthcoming study, Journey into Tribal Islam: America and the Conflict between Center and Periphery in the Muslim World, to be published by Brookings Press.

Original post: Deadly drones come to the Muslims of the Philippines


  1. who is doing this atrocity?

  2. So, what else is new? A Muslim kills , say, an American and he is a savage, uncivilized, barbarian. American soldiers kill Muslims every single day and yet they are ‘our brave, heroic boys’?And not just men, they kill old people, women and CHILDREN and then claim that they were acting in self-defence? Oh yeah, the little kids were about to hamstring them with their kites! America sucks!

  3. wait wait what??!?!?!??!!?? the usa is drone bombing the phillipines now?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!

  4. Aaizah Khan, not all of us are like that..Just judge the ones doing it, you know, the morons that follow orders from being brainwashed into thinking Muslims are the worst people on the face of the earth..When in all actuality, it is the idiots killing innocent people that are evil

  5. Allahu al Mustaa’an. (It’s ALLAH alone whose help should be sought) Muslims have been oppressed by the middle east dictators and non Muslims for quite some time. ALLAH subhanah wa ta ala has promised that Islam will conquer all religions so ALLAH is sufficient for us. and we all have a duty to defend our brothers and sisters and to put quick end to violence and protect the innocent men, women and children. insha’Allah

  6. Horrible article. Author is way to biased.

  7. No, not horrible article , horrible TRUTH.

  8. He is trying to justify ASG and MILFs actions. Trying to paint killers as victims. Makes it sounds like the US just randomly drones people. I like how they never tell you why it was done.
    I like Muslims, the Philippines and the great Philippino people (see profile pic). But to pretend everyone that fits those catagories is an innocent victim is insane.

  9. Cindy is right, keep things in perspective. We must separate the government and the people. Best not to generalize. We want to stick together so as to be strong against the NW

  10. *

  11. *NWO

  12. And Nicholas is correct too. Just my ten cents worth. And I really believe in inter- faith peace and cooperation. People, it is us they are after. They want us to be divided so they can easily conquer. So all the faiths must unite. Believe me, there is nothing “Christian” about the US govt and their orders to the troops. It is the Anti- Christ that is our collective enemy. Let us be at peace with all the good folks of our world and fight our real enemy. Amin.

  13. BTW, I did check out your profile, Mr.Wes Snider….on my own accord!;)

  14. Wow Khan please read what u have written. You put down Americans …implying we are all bad ? That makes u sound as bad as u say the Americans are for thinking all Muslims are bad ! I am an American and very proud of it…but in no way do I think Muslims are bad people. I would really dislike myself if I were so narrow minded to think that no race of people were as good as my race or that my religion was the only one that was right. It is so sad to me that we often forget WE ALL ARE THE HUMAN RACE AND THAT NO MATTER WHAT NAME WE GIVE TO OUR HEAVENLY FATHER…IN THE END WE ALL STRIVE FOR A PLACE BESIDE HIM !

  15. What?! I’m from jolo and i’ve heard the buzzing just last night! I had no idea that these things are happening if not for this post and neither do most people here. We may have terrorists here but most of the people here doesn’t have anything to do with terrorism. It’s just so sad that the actions of a few overshadows the positive traits of many.

  16. WTF?!! This is the president who’s committed to giving diplomacy every chance before taking military action to stop Iran’s nuclear advances, but he’s authorized bombing Phillipine villages? Can we say “cognitive dissonance”?

  17. is this authentic?

  18. May be IF this is not authentic, please read about Wazirisatn and Afghanistan. It’s the same sad story……

  19. These people kidnap and murder people. Just a few weeks ago a 12 year old boy with U.S. citizenship escaped from these people. Maybe they should put down their guns and work out a peaceful solution.

  20. Salam Alaykum waramatulahi wabaraketuh.

    I’m American and Muslim. In the end I was exhausted with the rhetoric and hatred, so I had to immigrate to KSA to avoid the rampant xenophobia sweeping the land. I should write a book about it, but then again I might get droned…

    America IS a great country and most of the people are just simple, hard working, innocent thinking people that are easily swayed by the mass media…

    The real issue here is having people in power who either hate Muslims, or at the least have no issue with oppressing and killing others in order to further their cause of greedy exploitation of the world’s resources. The world’s greatest resource is not really oil or minerals, although that is a huge part of of it… No sir, the world’s greatest resources is it’s PEOPLE.

    Think about this: Controlling dwindling fossil fuel that powers the majority of all transport and heating, including the manipulation of the populace, and subsequent domination and assimilation into the mind f%$k that is the majority of their culture, boosted by a “war on terror” that gives you global powers to kill your own people even if they never raised a hand against you, this equals complete control… complete, unequivocal WORLD DOMINATION…

    The “WAR ON TERROR” in all fairness and any reality that a sane person could imagine, is in truth a “WAR ON ANYONE WHO OPPOSES” via any means necessary, aka a WAR of TERROR…

    Who are the real terrorists?

  21. So sad….what’s next for us Muslims here in the Philippines? Where to go? PEACE…I hope and Pray. Soon. InshaAllah!

  22. Im sorry I thovght I was reading on a site called AMERICANS AGAINST ISLAMOPHOBIA? After reading some of these post maybe the name of the site should be changed to LETS DOG AMERICA AND HATE ALL HER PEOPLE ? The hatered from some of the post here makes me sick ! How do we help in any situation if all there is are closed eyes and hardened hearts ?

  23. There is a very wise saying that says…BELIEVE LITTLE OF WHAT YOU SEE…LESS OF WHAT YOU READ AND NONE OF WHAT YOU HEAR …think about it…

  24. And who is to be blamed for those hardened hearts…..? just because you are proud of your country it does not means it is perfect. I am also very proud of my country but that does not means my country is perfect. Any ways, thank you Ma’am . Reading comments by Ms Cindy, Mr Wes and you has made me a little hopeful. Maybe good Americans also exist……

  25. BTW, America is a girl?????

  26. What is America doing in the Philippines anyway? Why the heck doesn’t our government keep its nose out of every country’s problems and focus on fixing our own?

  27. Ms Khan…I will be the first to admit America is not perfect nor did I say she was…No country is perfect because countries are ran and occupied by humans and we all know theres no perfect human. With that said let me answer ur question to the best of my ability…as individuals we are only responceable for our own actions and reactions…no one can harden your heart or close ur eyes to the world around u except u ! I refuse to let my heart to be hardened because I know that in every country on this planet there are alot of very good people and that in itself gives me hope. I refvse to close my eyes for I realize that there are also evil people in every country on this planet as well…and for these people I pray for the hardest…for they can have a bad effect on this beautiful world around US.. I appreciate ur kind words and ur ray of hope. By the way I see America as female because Im a woman and she is my Motherland ask a man he may see it differently…lol

  28. I am very proud and i really honored Maj. Gen. Ruben O.Rafael for what he had showed to my brother Muslims in Jolo despite of his military rank status. I personally know him because he was my classmate in Albay High School here in Legaspi City. He is really a humble classmate like our other classmates Gen. William Esplana and Gen. Rely Majadelias who are both a P.A. officials. We are all Bicolanos in blood. I am now a “Reverted Muslim”…

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