Two Wars

12 June 2003

Two Quite Different Wars

By Gwynne Dyer

The wars that flared up again last month in the Indonesian province of Aceh and the island of Mindanao in the southern Philippines seem to have a lot in common. Indeed, both Indonesia’s President Megawati Sukarnoputri and Philippines President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo are exploiting the climate created by the US ‘war on terrorism’ to justify their attacks on local separatist movements that call themselves ‘Islamic’. But neither the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) in Indonesia nor the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in the Philippines are really linked to al-Qaeda, and the two conflicts will probably have quite different outcomes.

“It takes two to tango,” said President Macapagal Arroyo in Davao City on 10 June, demanding that MILF respond to her offer of permanent peace with more than a temporary ceasefire. But the fact that she is following up her military offensive with an extended visit to the troubled island of Mindanao suggests that she is after something more than a mere military victory. She is actually trying to end the war.

Both MILF and its rival in the region, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), embody the resentment of the Muslims of the southern Philippines who have become a minority in their own region due to massive government-sponsored Christian immigration over the past fifty years. MILF is more ‘Islamic’ in tone, but the original break between the two groups was driven by personal rivalries (MILF leader Hashim Selamat was second-in-command of the MNLF until 1979), and current differences are mostly about the peace agreement that MNLF leader Nur Misuari signed with Manila in 1996.

MILF would be withering away by now if Manila had actually carried out the 1996 deal in good faith, but it didn’t. Nur Misuari was elected governor of the new Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao, but the deal was sabotaged in Manila by Christian senators and congressmen from Mindanao, who cut funds for implementation of the peace agreement and refused to give the autonomous regional government any taxation authority.

As a result, the Muslims of Mindanao still do not have their own government seven years after the peace agreement — and so popular support has shifted to the hold-outs of MILF who never trusted Manila in the first place. Despite a ceasefire, skirmishes between MILF’s 12,000 fighters and government troops have been escalating since 2000, and a wave of attacks that killed about 100 people in Mindanao in May was the last straw for Macapagal Arroyo’s government.

She also accuses MILF of having had contacts with the Islamist terrorists of Jemaah Islamiyah, the regional affiliate of al-Qaeda, and at some level that may be true. But MILF’s support still comes mainly from moderate Muslims who want to stop the erosion of their community’s political and economic position in Mindanao, and a proper implementation of the autonomy deal would either draw MILF into peaceful politics or cut the ground out from under it.

The fact that MILF has responded to the government’s offensive with a series of unilateral ceasefires, the latest of which suspends offensive operations until 22 June, and that neighbouring Malaysia is offering to broker peace talks, suggests that this flare-up of fighting is only temporary. It also raises the rather comforting suspicion that both MILF and Macapagal Arroyo are really manoeuvring to outflank the roadblocks thrown up in Congress by Christian politicians from Mindanao and get to a real peace deal. If that’s what they want, they can probably get it.

There is no similar hope of a silver lining in the war clouds over Aceh. Though the rebels of GAM say they want an Islamic state in Aceh, their more important and non-negotiable demand is for an independent state. That is something no government in Jakarta will grant for fear of turning multi-ethnic Indonesia into the next Yugoslavia — and President Sukarnoputri’s government is even less flexible than Macapagal Arroyo’s because she, unlike her Filipino counterpart, is running for re-election next year.

Aceh, on the northern tip of the island of Sumatra, has rich gas reserves, but the war is not really about economics. Neither is it about Islamic extremism: though GAM exploits Aceh’s deep Islamic traditions as part of its basically nationalist struggle, it has no links with al-Qaeda and faces an Indonesian government that is also overwhelmingly Muslim. What makes Jakarta so obdurate is the fear that Aceh’s departure, following hard on the independence of East Timor in1999, would be the signal for every other disgruntled ethnic group in the country to head for the door.

The ceasefire that was signed by GAM five months ago never had a chance, for Jakarta always insisted that the rebels renounce their claim to independence, accept autonomy as the basis for further negotiations, and lay down their weapons. Since GAM was undefeated in battle after 27 years of rebellion and continues to have the sympathy of most of the 4 million Acehnese, there was no reason for it to comply. The return to fighting was inevitable.

Forty-five thousand Indonesian troops have now swept into the province, 300 schools have been burned, and several hundred civilians are already dead, but there is no end in sight because neither side will compromise and neither side can lose. It is perfectly possible to believe that this war will still be going on — though punctuated by ceasefires of varying duration — a full generation from now.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 6. (“It takes…war”; and”She also…it”)

NOTE: even Filipino newspapers disagree on whether to refer to the president as Macapagal or Arroyo. The use of both patronyms is always correct.