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Philippines Defend Anti-Terror Efforts - 2004-04-14


The Philippines has been one of Washington's staunchest Asian allies in its global war on terror over the past two and a half years. But Manila's commitment to fighting terrorism has been questioned in the wake of its patchy record in reining in local militants.

After capturing six suspected Islamic militants accused of plotting massive bomb attacks in Manila, government troops on April 8 killed a senior member of the radical Abu Sayyaf group and five of his men. The two operations prompted President Gloria Arroyo to say the government was making big strides in its war against domestic terror.

But triumph turned to dismay last Saturday when 53 prisoners, many of them Abu Sayyaf members, escaped from jail on the southern island of Basilan. Several of them are still at large. Making matters worse, suspected Abu Sayyaf guerrillas last Sunday abducted two Malaysians and an Indonesian from a boat as it was sailing near Sabah in Malaysia.

Publicly, the United States remains supportive of the government's anti-terror efforts. But there have been news reports locally and overseas questioning President Arroyo's efforts to eliminate terrorism at home.

Manila rejects that idea. Presidential spokesman Ignacio Bunye said on local television that foiling the bomb attacks and killing the Abu Sayyaf leader prove the government is not shirking its duties. "All these developments negate the alleged statement that we are lukewarm to doing our responsibilities as far as anti-terror is concerned," he says.

Over the past two years, the government has hunted down dozens of members of the Abu Sayyaf, which claims to be fighting for an Islamic state in the southern islands of the Philippines. The gang, however, is best known for a series of kidnappings and murders.

Manila also has pushed forward on peace negotiations with another separatist Islamic group in the south, where most of the country's Muslim minority lives.

The police and army have defended their efforts to crack down on militants. National Security Advisor Norberto Gonzales told journalists recently that the legislature's failure to pass a new anti-terrorism law has hindered the work of security forces. "Now we see sometimes that the world has changed and some of the most democratic countries in the world are fixing their laws to protect their citizens," he says. "Here in the Philippines we are still debating that."

But there are concerns that the proposed law would give too much power to the police and military. That is unsettling to many in the Philippines, because of the years the country spent under martial law during the rule of President Ferdinand Marcos.

Joel Rocamora, head of the Institute for Popular Democracy, says the proposed anti-terrorism law is both draconian and unnecessary, and would take the country down a dangerous path. He points out that similar legislation in the United States has been controversial. "In the United States, the anti-terrorism law has had a lot of critics, and that's in a country where defense of civil rights is a long established tradition," he says. "And here in the Philippines you put together a law like that, the way back from it could be really, really nasty."

Mr. Rocamora says the government should boost the capabilities of the police and work to improve relations and living conditions in Islamic communities if it really wants to make headway against terrorism.

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