Mutiny in Manila
by Naomi Klein
The Nation magazine, September
What does it take to become a major news
story in the summer of Arnold and Kobe, Ben and Jen? A lot, as
a group of young Philippine soldiers discovered recently. On July
27, 300 soldiers rigged a giant Manila shopping mall with C-4
explosives, accused one of Washington's closest allies of staging
terrorist attacks to attract US military dollars-and still barely
managed to make the international news.
That's our loss, because in the wake of
the Marriott bombing in Jakarta and newly leaked intelligence
reports claiming that the September 11 attacks were hatched in
Manila, it looks like Southeast Asia is about to become the next
major front in Washington's War on Terror..
The Philippines and Indonesia may have
missed the cut for the Axis of Evil, but the two countries do
offer Washington something Iran and North Korea do not: US-friendly
governments willing to help the Pentagon secure an easy win. Both
Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and Indonesian President
Megawati Sukarnoputri have embraced Bush's crusade as the perfect
cover for their brutal cleansing of separatist movements from
resource-rich regions-Mindanao in the Philippines, Aceh in Indonesia.
The Philippine government has already
reaped a bonanza from its status as Washington's favored terror-fighting
ally in Asia. US military aid increased from $2 million in 2001
to $80 million a year while US soldiers and Special Forces flooded
into Mindanao to launch offensives against Abu Sayyaf, a group
the White House claims has links to Al Qaeda.
This went on until mid-February, when
the US-Philippine alliance suffered a major setback. On the eve
of a new joint military operation involving more than 3,000 US
soldiers, a Pentagon spokesperson told reporters that US troops
in the Philippines would "actively participate" in combat-a
deviation from the Arroyo administration's line that the soldiers
were only conducting "trainings."
The difference is significant: A clause
in the Philippine constitution bans combat by foreign soldiers
on its soil, a safeguard against a return of the sprawling US
military bases that were banished from the Philippines in 1992.
The public outcry was so strong that the entire operation had
to be called off, and future joint operations suspended.
In the six months since, while all eyes
have been on Iraq, there has been a spike in terrorist bombings
in Mindanao. Now, post-mutiny, the question is: Who did it? The
government blames the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. The mutinous
soldiers point the finger back at the military and the government,
claiming that by inflating the terrorist threat, they are rebuilding
the justification for more US aid and intervention.
Among the soldiers' claims:
* that senior military officials, in collusion
with the Arroyo regime, carried out last March's bombing of the
airport of the southern city of Davao, as well as several other
attacks. Thirty-eight people were killed in the bombings. The
leader of the mutiny, Lieut. Antonio Trillanes, claims to have
"hundreds" of witnesses who can testify to the plot.
* that the army has fueled terrorism in
Mindanao by selling weapons and ammunition to the very rebel forces
the young soldiers were sent to fight.
* that members of the military and police
helped prisoners convicted of terrorist crimes escape from jail.
The "final validation," according to Trillanes, was
Fathur Rohman al-Ghozi's July 14 escape from a heavily guarded
Manila prison. Al-Ghozi is a notorious bomb-maker with Jemaah
Islamiyah, which has been linked to both the Bali and Marriott
* that the government was on the verge
of staging a new string of bombings to justify declaring martial
Arroyo denies the allegations and accuses
the soldiers of being pawns of her unscrupulous opponents. The
mutineers insist they were not trying to seize power but only
wanted to expose a top-level conspiracy. When Arroyo promised
to launch a full investigation into the allegations, the mutiny
ended without violence.
Though the soldiers' tactics were widely
condemned in the Philippines, there was widespread recognition
in the press, and even inside the military, that their claims
were "valid and legitimate," as retired Navy Capt. Danilo
Vizmanos put it to me.
Local newspaper reports described the
army's selling of weapons to rebels as "an open secret"
and "common knowledge." The army's chief-of-staff, Gen.
Narciso Abaya, conceded that there is "graft and corruption
at all levels." And police have admitted that al-Ghozi couldn't
have escaped from his cell without help from someone on the inside.
Most significant, Victor Corpus, chief of army intelligence, resigned,
though he denies any role in the Davao bombings.
Besides, the soldiers were not the first
to accuse the Philippine government of bombing its own people.
Days before the mutiny, a coalition of church groups, lawyers
and NGOs launched a "fact-finding mission" to investigate
persistent rumors that the state was involved in the Davao explosions.
It is also investigating the possible involvement of US intelligence
These suspicions stem from a bizarre incident
on May 16, 2002, in Davao. Michael Meiring, a US citizen, allegedly
detonated explosives in his hotel room, injuring himself badly.
While recovering in the hospital, Meiring was whisked away by
two men, who witnesses say identified themselves as FBI agents,
and flown to the United States. Local officials have demanded
that Meiring return to face charges, to little effect. Business
World, a leading Philippine newspaper, has published articles
openly accusing Meiring of being a CIA agent involved in covert
operations "to justify the stationing of American troops
and bases in Mindanao."
Yet the Meiring affair has never been
reported in the US press. And the mutinous soldiers' amazing allegations
were no more than a one-day story. Maybe it just seemed too outlandish:
an out of-control government fanning the flames of terrorism to
pump up its military budget, hold on to power and violate civil
Why would Americans be interested in something