In the southern Philippines, joint exercises between U.S. Green Berets and Philippine troops have focused international attention on the Abu Sayyaf, a small group of Muslim guerrillas that has been linked to the al-Qaida terrorist network. Although local residents are tired of being terrorized by the Abu Sayyaf, they say the guerrillas are merely part of a much larger problem in the region.
Life is hard in the southern islands known as Mindanao. Jobs are scarce and smuggling, long a way of life, brings wealth only to a powerful few. Many people subsist by fishing and by raising coconut, corn and a few head of livestock on family plots.
Unlike the rest of the Philippines, which is overwhelmingly Christian, Mindanao has a large Muslim population. The Muslim community is among the poorest in the country. And although there is a tradition of peaceful co-existence, centuries-old tensions fester between the two religious communities.
Muslims feel aggrieved over land grabbing by Christian settlers, who arrived in the 1800's with land deeds from Manila. They displaced the original inhabitants to carve out large rubber and coconut plantations. And many people feel ignored by a central government that is far away, in Luzon, the northernmost group of islands.
"What they feel is that the government is not really concerned with their welfare," says Wahab Akbar is the governor of Basilan, one of the poorest provinces.
Since the early 1970's, various guerrilla groups have fought for Muslim autonomy in the southern Philippines. Thousands of people have died as the government battled the Moro National Liberation Front, or MNLF, and subsequently the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, or MILF. In the past few years, however, the government has reached a peace accord with the MNLF and is in peace talks now with the MILF.
The emergence in 1990 of the Abu Sayyaf brought a more brutal dimension to the violence. Abu Sayyaf guerrillas say they are fighting for an Islamic state, but they mostly terrorize local civilians through kidnappings for ransom and beheadings.
Ali Yacub, a professor at Zamboanga's Western Mindanao State University, says many people make a distinction between the activities of the first two groups and those of the Abu Sayyaf. "Terrorism has been perpetrated by the Abu Sayyaf, and it is terrorism because it has no ideology, it is only criminal activity," he says. "And the majority of citizens, in particular the Muslims in the area, don't approve of this activity." Professor Ali says most Muslims believe kidnapping and murder is un-Islamic.
Governor Wahab, a former MNLF guerrilla, says the Abu Sayyaf are more than criminal. "We say they are devil in human form. They do not know Islam."
Local authorities are reluctant to pursue alleged attackers and local residents are afraid to denounce them. They say that often the guerrillas, when flush with ransom money, come down from their mountain hideouts and enjoy what they call vacations in the community. And when the money runs out, they return to the mountains, and repeat the cycle.
The Salaam Peace Foundation promotes dialogue between the Muslim and Christian communities. Its director, Ali Aiyub, says the guerrillas' impunity is leading to the formation of civilian vigilante groups. "It is because of the deterioration of the judicial system. People are taking the law into their [own] hands because they don't see justice," he says. "You have to make the judicial system effective in that area."
Some blame the conflict on the political system, based on the feudal colonial model, whereby a few wealthy families dominate politics and the poor have no voice in governance.
Mr. Aiyub says the national government must be more responsive. "People from Manila, from the national government, are dictating, pushing their agenda to be the formula for solving the problem in Mindanao," he says. "And people are hesitant to accept this. They say, "We have the solution, but the people in Manila are not listening."
The government says it is listening. Five years ago, it established the Autonomous Region for Muslim Mindanao, or ARMM. And, backed by international donors, it has started regional development projects worth millions of dollars.
But local residents say the ARMM has failed to improve the region, and most of the funds have been diverted to promote personal agendas. A new governor for the ARMM was elected last November. But many residents are disillusioned and say they wonder if the violence will ever end.