- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 14, 2009


In an East Asia that is generally experiencing political and economic progress from Seoul to Singapore, the Philippines stands out as a running sore that seems to have no cure.

The Asia Foundation, the nongovernmental organization seeking to stimulate development, has reported that the southern Philippines “suffers from poor infrastructure, poverty, and violence that has claimed more than 120,000 lives in the last four decades” of civil strife, terror and insurgencies, and crime that goes unchecked.

A retired U.S. military officer with long experience in Asia said that “the fundamental problem in the Philippines is that the Philippine government has not figured out how to help the people, to pick up the garbage and to educate the children.”

An American civilian official agreed, saying a “failure in governance” was the basic cause of the misery in the Philippines. He pointed to “the feudal society in the Philippines” and contended that “until that is changed, the problems will continue to be unresolved.”

From all accounts, Philippine and foreign, corruption is pervasive throughout the archipelago. Renaud Meyer, a representative of the United Nations Development Program in Manila, was quoted in the Philippine press earlier this year as saying corruption “is a primary obstacle in the effective delivery of public services and fulfillment of basic rights.”

He predicted it would get worse. “These are challenging times for all of us in our fight against corruption, especially in the next two years,” Mr. Meyer said. “For one, we are in the midst of an impending international economic crisis, which is affecting both developed and developing economies. Second, 2010 is election period in the Philippines.”

The central government in Manila has appeared hapless in the face of repeated natural disasters in recent months.

The Philippine archipelago, which form the eastern rim of the South China Sea, not only have experienced a breakdown in basic law and order; the country provides a haven and training site for terrorists and insurgents to move into the rest of Southeast Asia. They travel from the southern Philippines along island chains through the Sulu and Celebes seas into Malaysia, Indonesia and beyond.

In the Philippines itself, the terrorists of the Abu Sayyaf, Jemaah Islamiya, and the Rajah Solaiman Movement, plus the communist New People’s Army, operate with near impunity. A contingent of U.S. special operations forces, usually numbering 600 troops, has been assisting the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) for about seven years in the southern Philippines but with little visible success.

“The AFP,” said a longtime Philippine hand, “are glad to have other people do their fighting.”

A U.S. State Department report four years ago asserted, “The major, and disturbing, trend in the Philippines has been the growing cooperation among the Islamist terrorist organizations operating in the country: Jemaah Islamiya, the Abu Sayyaf Group, and the Rajah Sulaiman Movement.” The latter comprises Christian converts to Islam, which allows them to pass undetected in other parts of the Philippines.

In a similar report in the spring, the department said Philippine troops, with the intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance help of U.S. forces, “continued to marginalize the remaining numbers” of the Islamic terrorists. But the report said the 5,000-strong New People’s Army “continued to disrupt public security and business operations with intermittent attacks” on communications and transportation everywhere.

Late last month, two American soldiers were killed in the southern Philippines by a roadside bomb believed to have been planted by terrorists linked to al Qaeda. The Associated Press said they were the first American troops to die in an attack in the Philippines in seven years. The U.S. Embassy said they were on a resupply mission for a school construction project on the island of Jolo.

An obvious and disturbing question: Were their deaths an omen of things to come?

Richard Halloran is a freelance writer and former New York Times correspondent based in Honolulu.

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