Driving terrorism from the Philippines

Miranda Kennedy Dec 5, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: Last year the Philippine Army called a Christmas truce with the Maoist and Muslim militants it’s been fighting for years. Not this time. Today it announced plans to step up the offensive this holiday season. The U.S. took a keen interest in the insurgents after September 11th. Some fighters there have ties to Al Quaeda. And the U.S. worried the Philippines might become a safe haven. So the Pentagon sent troops. And millions of dollars. We sent Miranda Kennedy to the remote island of Jolo to find out whether the American investment is paying off.

MIRANDA KENNEDY: When a massive U.S. military helicopter spirals down into a field, in the small Filipino fishing town of Panamao, it’s definitely the most exciting event of the week.

Even in the pouring rain, the mayor and his wife come out to greet the group of U.S. soldiers. They are shadowed by about 20 Filipino army escorts. This is one of the most dangerous and volatile parts of Asia. But despite that, Colonel Andy Wood, who’s in charge of the troops, is all smiles. They love him in this town of 28,000 people. And he loves playing up the part of the good guy.

ANDY WOOD: When I was a boy, I lived in the Philippines. I went to third and fourth grade here. Every morning we’d have to stand up and sing the Filipino national anthem.

Two years ago, Panamao town was leveled during fierce fighting between the Filipino army and the international terrorist group Abu Sayyaf. After the insurgents were driven out, the U.S. came in and rebuilt pretty much everything. The mayor’s wife, Anang Abdul Razak, wants to show the colonel the renovations.

ANANG ABDUL RAZAK: This is our workshop. This is our hospital.

Just in the last year, the U.S. paid for three schools, the main road, the town hall and the water well. It’s part of the $110 million investment the U.S. made in the Philippines last year to try to drive the terrorist groups off the islands altogether. Razak is so grateful, she says she wants a picture of President George Bush to hang on her wall.

RAZAK: You know, the American people is in our heart already. Do you think the Philippine government can give us this one? This building? This road? We really love American, really.

Most of the country’s Muslims live on these southern islands, the poorest parts of the Philippines. A sense of neglect by the government bred a violent separatist movement. Kristie Kenney, the U.S. ambassador to the Philippines, says the idea is to keep people from turning to terrorism.

KRISTIE KENNEY: You’re using economic development to give people hope. Where you think my son doesn’t have to have the option of picking up a gun and being recruited into a lawless lifestyle, my son would like to grow up and be a seaweed farmer.

The U.S. has backed up its investment with hundreds of U.S. soldiers. But they have to walk a careful line here. The Philippine constitution forbids foreign troops from fighting on its soil. So, Colonel Wood’s soldiers do a lot of soft stuff, like designing drainage systems. They also help train the Filipino army and provide intelligence. But otherwise they live by the old motto “walk softly and carry a big stick.”

WOOD: You saw a lot of guns there, yeah you did. But you didn’t see me with a gun. Because I am the one that’s going to be relating to the mayor, people like that. Some of that’s for our own protection, but some of it is image control as well. We have to be very careful about the image we project.

Careful, because the U.S. occupied the Philippines up until only 60 years ago. Colonel Wood wants the town to see friendly Americans, not soldiers trying to take over the country again. But he wants the insurgents and terrorist groups — who he knows are still active on the next island — to see tough U.S. Special Forces guys who aren’t to be messed with.

This combination of muscle and money seems to work. The insurgents keep their distance, but when Colonel Wood walks through the town the U.S. government built, the kids run out of their houses to wave and cheer.

On Jolo island in the Philippines, I’m Miranda Kennedy for Marketplace.

There’s a lot happening in the world.  Through it all, Marketplace is here for you. 

You rely on Marketplace to break down the world’s events and tell you how it affects you in a fact-based, approachable way. We rely on your financial support to keep making that possible. 

Your donation today powers the independent journalism that you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help sustain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.