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Monday, 1 May, 2000, 03:42 GMT 04:42 UK
Hostage drama highlights bitter conflict
Philippine troops
The hostage drama has focused attention on a long conflict
By regional analyst Olivia Stewart

The sudden seizure of a group of civilian hostages from a diving resort in Malaysia has focused world attention on a long-running conflict in the nearby Philippines.

It is the latest incident in a bitter conflict that has pitched Muslim separatist groups in the southern Philippines against the central government in Manila.

The captives appear to have been taken by a rebel group from the southern Philippines, where Muslim separatists have been fighting for nearly 30 years to break away from the predominantly Roman Catholic remainder of the country.

Some government officials dismiss the group as a collection of local bandits who are after ransom money.

Others have warned that it has links with other international Muslim guerrilla organisations.

But Father Angel Calvo, a priest who fled Basilan after a colleague was kidnapped by Abu Sayyaf, says the group has a following amongst local people too.

"It is a phenomenon, a movement that attracts the young generation," he said.

Most of its members are young - maybe because they are attracted to the doctrine, the promises, and because they see that the old leadership has failed on the real demands of the Moro people in the Philippines," Father Calvo said.

Although Islam has served as a rallying call against Manila, many of the grievances of the southern rebels are economic at heart.

Needs ignored

What started in the 1960s with anger at land grabs by migrants from the northern Philippines, has turned into a feeling amongst many Filipino Muslims that the government has ignored their needs.

"Certainly one thing is very clear if you compare the predominantly Muslim provinces in the Philippines with the whole of the rest of the country," said Mara Stankovitch, a journalist with a special interest in the southern Philippines.

"It's that government services in those areas are much fewer and further between - things like housing, schools, education, health," she said.

The conflict in Mindanao has cost the Philippines government dear - with the country's armed forces pitching soldiers, helicopters and tanks against the grenades, mortars and machine guns of the separatists.

Philippine conflict
The conflict has cost the Philippines dear
Even where peace has been made, it is now threatening to unravel.

In 1996, the rebel MNLF, or Moro National Liberation Front, reached an agreement with the government, and the group laid down its arms.

Its leader, Nur Misuari, is now governor of the autonomous Muslim region of Mindanao.

Agreement delays

But the Philippines Congress has yet to ratify the peace agreement, and Mr Misuari says many of his followers are now defecting to the more militant MILF and even Abu Sayyaf:

"Definitely, it's because of the delay, the dilly-dallying in the implementation of the peace agreement that is creating the social environment for dissatisfaction and resentment, and people are looking for other avenues within which to express their sentiments," he said.

Successive governments have negotiated piecemeal agreements with the different rebel groups. But a co-ordinated settlement seems far off.

President Joseph Estrada has agreed to resume negotiations with the rebel MILF in early May, but has also threatened a major offensive against it if there is no progress within two months.

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See also:

29 Apr 00 | Asia-Pacific
Kidnappers evade Philippines army
27 Apr 00 | Asia-Pacific
Hostages 'safe' in Philippines
26 Apr 00 | Asia-Pacific
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Malaysian kidnap 'puzzle'
23 Apr 00 | Asia-Pacific
Philippine army 'to crush' rebels
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