Sunday, October 25, 2009

Is the US forces winning hearts and minds in Sulu?

Sulu, one of five provinces under the restive Muslim autonomous region in the southern Philippines. (Mindanao Examiner Photo)

SULU, Philippines (Mindanao Examiner / October 25, 2009) – US forces helping Filipino troops defeat terrorism in Sulu thought it is winning the hearts and minds of Muslim in the southern Philippine province of Sulu, but it is not.

It may have won little in the so-called America’s war on terror in Sulu with the killings of some of the leaders of the al-Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf group.

But the public support on the US role in the local insurgency is small despite its massive humanitarian and infrastructure projects over the years in an effort to win hearts and minds of the locals and as a cover for the continued stay of some 600 American troops deployed in the volatile southern region as part of the campaign called “Operation Enduring Freedom-Philippines.”

The US troops are under the Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines, composed mostly of Special Forces and Marines and have been operating in Sulu since 2006, although the American forces have been staying at tightly guarded base in Zamboanga City since 2001 after the Abu Sayyaf kidnapped dozens of European, Asian and US tourists in Malaysia and the Philippines.

In Sulu, support for the continued stay of US troops have evaded the Pentagon, although press handouts from American and Filipino military spokesmen say the public clamor for the presence of the foreign troops is overwhelming.

Anti-US rallies and accusations of human rights violations are not uncommon in Sulu and also in other areas where there are presence of US troops – Mindanao, the second largest island in the Philippines where local military is battling communist and Muslim insurgents, and is also fighting al-Qaeda-linked militants and members of the Indonesian terror group Jemaah Islamiya which have been blamed for the spate of bombings that had killed three US Special Forces soldiers since 2002.

The only pro-US rally held in Sulu was headed by Sultan Mohd Pulalun in 2006 where some 300 Muslims welcomed the arrival of hundreds of American soldiers participating in the “Balikatan-06,” which means “shoulder-to-shoulder,” a codename for the joint military exercises on the province. But it was staged to get the Washington to support Pulalun, who is one of dozens claiming to be the real leader of the Sultan of Sulu and North Borneo.

Muslims in Sulu accused US troops of being arrogant. Filipino journalists covering the US presence in Mindanao were chased away by American soldiers in public places for taking their pictures; some seized equipment of cameramen while others had been threatened with bodily harm and arrested for photographing US military planes and patrols.

Many locals in Sulu said they felt as if they are terrorists by how American troops looked at them. Others think US troops are paranoid who looked at Muslims as suicide bombers or rebels. In the past, US troops deployed in Muslim areas in Mindanao undergo seminars and briefing on the traditions of Islam, but not anymore.

Some looked at US troops with suspicions and hatred. Many thought the US troops are digging for treasures left behind by the Japanese forces during World War 2, while others think they are securing American interests and oil exploration in the Sulu Sea.

But the elders still recall the US counter-insurgency campaign in Sulu in 1906 where hundreds of Muslims – women and children and old men – were mercilessly killed in what is now called Bud Dajo Massacre during the Philippine-American War.

Historians said that during this battle, 790 US soldiers under the command of Colonel J.W. Duncan, assaulted the volcanic crater of Mount Dajo, which was populated by some 1000 Muslim villagers. Although the battle was a victory for the US forces, it was also an unmitigated public relations disaster. Only six Muslim villagers came out alive from the crater of Bud Dajo, an extinct volcano some 2,100 feet above sea level.

According to the Wikipedia, the first battle at Bud Dajo happened during the final days of General Leonard Wood's term as governor of the Moro Province.

Following the American victory, President Theodore Roosevelt sent Wood a congratulatory cablegram, but reporters stationed at Manila had cabled their own somewhat imaginative account to the press. The March 9, 1906 New York Times headlines read, “WOMEN AND CHILDREN KILLED IN MORO BATTLE PRESIDENT WIRES CONGRATULATIONS TO TROOPS.”

The press' lurid account of the "Moro Crater Massacre" fell on receptive ears. There were still deep misgivings among the American public about America's role during the Spanish-American War and the stories of atrocities carried out during the Philippine Insurrection. The public had also been largely unaware of the continuing violence in the Moro Province, and were shocked to learn that killing continued.

Under pressure from Congress, Secretary of War, William Howard Taft, cabled Wood for explanation of the “wanton slaughter” of woman and children. Despite not being in command of the assault, Wood accepted full responsibility. By the time the scandal died down, Wood had assumed his post as Commander of the Philippine Division, and General Tasker H. Bliss had replaced him as governor of the Moro Province. (Mindanao Examiner)

No comments: