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Tuesday, February 23, 1999 Published at 00:33 GMT

World: Asia-Pacific

Philippine dream of Islamic state

It could be East Asia's first revolutionary Islamic state

By Simon Ingram in Mindanao

The Philippine island Mindanao might yet become east Asia's first revolutionary Islamic state.

Simon Ingram: Half the armed forces are deployed to fight the MILF
Here in its heartland, the Philippine government is the enemy, and armed resistance a way of life.

We were granted rare access to this remote stronghold, where dirt tracks lead through rugged jungle terrain, and past the fields that provide a living for Camp Abu Bakar's civilian inhabitants.

On Wednesday President Estrada of the Philippines is also due to begin a visit to the island to try to push forward peace talks between the government and the rebel Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which is demanding an independent state for the Philippines' six million Muslim minority.

A fragile ceasefire has been in place since serious clashes between the army and the MILF erupted in late January.

Tough talking

Our visit had been carefully-arranged, but there was tight security even so; the leaders of MILF are wanted men and take few chances.

We had come to meet Salamat Hashim, the veteran MILF leader who rejected previous deals offering autonomy to the Philippines' Muslim minority.

He still insists that the group's demand for full independence is not negotiable.

Salamat Hashim, chairman of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, said: "We have lost confidence in the Philippine government.

"We do not want the Philippine government to oppress our people forever. We do not want to fight the Philippine government. We are asking, we are demanding a civilised way of solving the problem," he added.

Holy struggle

In the camp's training academy nearby, new recruits digest in Arabic the borrowed lexicon of holy struggle.

[ image: Civilians are caught in the cross-fire]
Civilians are caught in the cross-fire
It is an anti-colonialist creed that Islamic freedom fighters from Algeria to Afghanistan fight and die for.

In Mindanao too, the rhetoric is backed by a formidable arsenal of weapons; some are manufactured by the rebels themselves.

In late January, artillery and rocket exchanges between the MILF and the Philippines army erupted yet again.

The renewed fighting left dozens of people dead but may have re-galvanised efforts to end a conflict that has drained government resources.

'One country, one people'

Half the armed forces are deployed to deny the MILF its separatist ambitions. But if the soldiers' resolve is weakening, they're not showing it.

Captain Julieto Ando, the Philippines Army spokesman said:- "We do not want independence in Mindanao. We must have only one armed force, we must have one country, we must have only one people. Its only the Philippines.

As always, it is the civilian population caught in the crossfire who end up bearing the heaviest sacrifice.

In a makeshift camp beside a main road, we found some of the 80,000 people who had been turned into temporary refugees by the recent fighting.

Nearby, the village mosque had also been damaged by gunfire - the kind of desecration that seemed certain to deepen the anger of the local population.

And this is what some of the refugees will have to return home to - shattered homes and the task of rebuilding broken lives. In addition, villages like this one now find themselves in the front-line of battle between two opposing armies.

To the Muslims of this beautiful but troubled land, the Philippine army is another foreign invader - just like the Spanish and the Americans before them.

Today, they may be a minority, but poverty and a sense of injustice has instilled a new commitment to do battle in the name of Islam.

As the latest Muslim volunteers train for war, moves towards a peace deal also gather pace. But unless the rhetoric softens, a compromise will remain elusive. A centuries' old struggle may be entering an even more dangerous phase.

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