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Fierce Islamic Tribes : Moros--A Philippine Powder Keg

April 23, 1986|MARK FINEMAN | Times Staff Writer

ZAMBOANGA, Philippines — The Muslim leaders sipping coffee in the colonial-era Lantaka Hotel last weekend were reminiscing with pride and foreboding about the tens of thousands of would-be conquerors they and their ancestors have slain in the last 400 years. It was a history, they said, that may soon repeat itself, this time with the support of Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi.

"You know, the Americans invented (the military use of) the .45-caliber pistol with us in mind," Amin Kadra abu Bakar, an incumbent mayor in the southern island province of Sulu, told an American journalist as his bodyguards stood nearby with M-16 rifles and grenade launchers bearing excerpts from the Koran.

"The Americans told us that the .38-caliber wasn't powerful enough to stop us. Oh, it would kill us, all right, but we'd live a few seconds--long enough to throw spears and bolos into your colonial soldiers."

Battle With Pirates

The U.S. Army introduced the .45-caliber automatic to military combat in a battle with Moro pirates on Jolo Island in the Philippines in 1913.

But during the 50 years that the Philippines was a territory of the United States, the Americans never succeeded in taming the fierce Muslim tribes of the southernmost island of Mindanao.

Neither did the Japanese during their occupation in World War II, nor the Spanish during their 350 years as colonial masters that ended with the Spanish-American War of 1898.

Not even former President Ferdinand E. Marcos, who ruled the Philippines with the help of powerful armed forces for two decades, could subdue the Islamic Moros of southern Mindanao, where the death toll from a Muslim insurgency in the 1970s reached into the hundreds of thousands.

Endured Torture

So brutal was that civil war that a Philippine army colonel, who conceded that his soldiers had tortured Moro leaders during the campaign, recently recalled, "The Moro rebellion taught me just how long it can take for some men to die."

The next lesson, according to Moro leaders and senior Philippine military commanders alike, may well be President Corazon Aquino's.

As those Muslim leaders gathered Sunday for their first ever Bangsa Moro (Moro Nation) Congress here in Zamboanga, 550 miles south of Manila, the message to Aquino's new government was clear:

Negotiate a lasting peace with the more than 4 million Filipino Muslims in the next few months, or risk what one leader called "a holy war that will make the massacres and the carnage of the 1970s look like an afternoon picnic."

The armed struggle for autonomy and independence in the Philippines' resource-rich, second-largest island of Mindanao by the Moros is the lesser known of the two insurgencies facing Aquino as she gropes for national stability in the wake of the coup that brought her to power in February. (The Moros were named by the Spanish conquistadors who were struck by their similarities to the Islamic Moors of medieval Spain).

Aquino and her advisers have been far more preoccupied by the rebellion of the Communist New People's Army, which has continued to strike almost at will throughout the country in military ambushes and political assassinations that have left more than 400 dead since Aquino took office.

Muslims Largely Ignored

Despite recent, intermittent guerrilla attacks by Libyan-backed Muslim insurgents in Mindanao, the Communist rebellion continues to grab headlines here and abroad, and U.S. congressional and Defense Department officials who have visited the Philippines in the last two months have largely ignored the Muslim insurgency.

Talking to a reporter visiting the Muslim center of Zamboanga, however, leaders of the Muslim rebel and political groups and local military authorities made it clear that Aquino could soon face another major crisis if she fails to address the demands of the Muslim secessionists.

The latter have maintained the rebel armies and kept enormous stockpiles of arms and ammunition, both here in the mountains near Zamboanga, despite a tenuous truce with the Marcos regime.

The Muslim rebellion is potentially more ominous than that of the Communists. Unlike the New People's Army, the Moro insurrectionists have a foreign base.

Trained by Kadafi

Moro leaders openly boast that they were trained in Col. Kadafi's terrorist camps in Libya and that the two principal Moro chiefs are now moving from city to city in fundamentalist Islamic nations in the Middle East.

The Moro leaders also concede that their campaign has been financed by Libya and Saudi Arabia, and, even now, the Moros refuse to negotiate with Aquino's government without the mediation of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, a 46-nation group based in Jidda, Saudi Arabia.

Further complicating the military logistics required to put down a Moro uprising, the rebels have been using the Malaysian state of Sabah, a short boat ride from the Moros' homeland on the southernmost tip of Philippines, as a haven in their guerrilla campaigns against the government.

Envoy From Aquino

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