The joint U.S.-Philippines anti-terrorism exercises are underway despite some political concerns over the American military presence. Residents in the southern Philippines also have mixed feelings about the exercises in their backyard.
About 150 Muslim students and young professionals protested on Basilan this week, one day after the United States and the Philippines agreed to push their joint military exercise into full swing. They fear the anti-terrorism exercises may take on an anti-Islamic tone here in the predominantly Muslim southern Philippines.
One hundred sixty U.S. Special Forces troops and 500 American soldiers will live in the jungles of Basilan to train Philippine soldiers over the next six months. Their target is the Abu Sayyaf, a Muslim extremist group vaguely linked to the al-Qaida terrorist network. It is well known for a series of kidnappings and now holds two Americans and a Philippine nurse captive.
The annual joint exercises have stirred controversy this year for several reasons: this is the first time they are taking place in a conflict zone, they are longer in duration than before, and the focus is anti-terrorism.
In Manila, the senate and courts are examining the legality of the maneuvers, called "Balikatan," considering if the U.S. military presence may impinge of Philippine sovereignty.
But here in Basilan, some residents have other concerns. Paul Aba, one of the protest organizers, says he fears the arrival of the U.S. troops could escalate the violence and displace more Basilan residents. He wants the Americans to train elsewhere in the country.
"They should train our soldiers but not in Basilan, because what if something might happen to the American soldiers, do you think America will not retaliate? I'm sure they will. That will cause further havoc, problems and dislocation of our people," he said.
The Philippine military for years has been pursuing the Abu Sayyaf, one of several Muslim separatist groups fighting here for decades. Operations against the group have intensified since the kidnapping of dozens of tourists from a resort last May. Still, the army has been unable to rescue three remaining hostages.
After the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, the United States offered help to Philippine President Gloria Arroyo fight homegrown terrorists. Part of that help is the joint Balikatan exercise. It is expected to upgrade the Philippine military's hardware and improve its tactics.
Basilan is one of the country's poorest provinces. Many people say the constant threat from the Abu Sayyaf aggravates that poverty by robbing them of their livelihoods. The group has extorted money from those who have jobs, and has kidnapped farmers, teachers and church workers.
One driver in Basilan says he supports the military exercise so that he can go back to farm in the mountains. He says the United States is the only solution to the Abu Sayyaf problem. He adds that people cannot depend on the government and the military because of their lack of equipment and poor tactics.
A civilian peace volunteer says he is tired of guarding his village against the Abu Sayyaf every night and has now little time to work during the day.
While many Basilan residents welcome the U.S. troops, Mr. Aba, the protest organizer, says the Americans could do more good if they brought development help, not military aid.
"If the Americans come bringing books, computers, construction of school buildings, and giving us more scholarship programs to enhance, upgrade and develop our lives, we really welcome America," he said. "But the only thing we don't like is when they bring firearms and live bullets, because they can kill and we don't want to add more problems.
President Gloria Arroyo says terrorism's roots lie in poverty and vows to combat the problem. In the meantime, the people of Basilan can only hope that the U.S. troop deployment in the next few days will make a difference to the island.