Manila's difficult dilemma

By Sarah Toms
BBC correspondent in Manila

Philippine President Gloria Arroyo was faced with an awkward choice - to save the life of a Filipino held hostage in Iraq or support the United States by keeping Philippine soldiers there.

It was a tough decision for Mrs Arroyo, just weeks after she won a new term in office.

By withdrawing all 51 peacekeepers, she scored political points at home. Now she must wait to see the extent of the fallout with Washington.

Manila has close ties with the United States, from an alliance that dates back to the start of the Cold War in the 1950s.

The US provides money, equipment and training to Philippine soldiers fighting Muslim rebels and communist guerrillas in the southern island of Mindanao.

"In time of test, enemies demand you kneel. I ask you: Please don't confuse your enemies with your friends," US Ambassador to the Philippines, Francis Ricciardone, said recently.

US anger

US officials said Washington and other allies are re-examining relations with Manila after President Arroyo decided to withdraw troops ahead of schedule.

But analysts say that while some strains are expected, there is likely to be little permanent damage to the bond between the Philippines and the US.

"On the surface everything will seem the same. The US will still pour money into Mindanao and supply military aid to help in the fight against terror," said Matt Williams of Pacific Strategies and Assessments, a Manila-based risk consultancy.

"But there will be a change in tone. The US will not be as generous with travel advisories, and it will now speak its mind more on concerns about corruption.

"Before the United States was hesitant to say what it thought, when it was trying to drum up support for the war on Iraq."

Earl Parreno, of the Institute of Political and Electoral Reforms, said any withdrawal of US military aid could cripple the poorly equipped Philippine armed forces and heighten security fears.

"The US could do that, but I think it won't as it also has an important interest in controlling insurgency and securing peace in Mindanao," Mr Parreno said.

Foreign workers

President Arroyo had to weigh US desires against domestic concerns when deciding her course of action during the hostage crisis.

She is under pressure to ensure the safety of more than eight million Filipinos - who, like hostage Angelo de la Cruz, work overseas and collectively send home billions of dollars every year.

Opinion polls show half of Filipinos wanted the troops brought home from Iraq after Mr de la Cruz, a truck driver and father of eight, was kidnapped.

Some analysts say that now Philippine troops are out of Iraq, militants no longer have much leverage against Manila, making it safer for Philippine civilian workers in the country.

But others say President Arroyo has opened the door to further kidnapping attempts against more than one million Filipinos working in the Middle East, as well as others back home.

People in the Philippines are no strangers to militant attacks.

Abu Sayyaf is the smallest but most violent Islamic separatist group in the country, infamous for kidnapping Westerners and Filipinos, beheading victims and receiving large ransom payments.

Many analysts say the level of attacks in the Philippines will remain about the same with or without the pull-out - because there is no evidence the government will respond any differently to Abu Sayyaf as a result of the withdrawal.

The official policy has been not to negotiate with groups of militants in the Philippines - a point that was emphasised on Tuesday by armed forces spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Lucero.

But Mr Williams, from Pacific Strategies and Assessments, said Abu Sayyaf's next kidnapping could become a political issue, with the militants trying to force the government to cave in to their demands.

"They have lost their ideological roots but they will still try to put the government in an awkward position, as the Abu Sayyaf is in it not only for the money, but also for the publicity," he said.

By withdrawing troops from Iraq to save the life of one man, the Philippines must now wait to see whether its gamble has paid off.

"There's no reversing or revising the decision to yield to the terrorists' ultimatum, abandoning our participation in Iraq, and incurring the disappointment and ire of our former 'coalition allies'," said an editorial in the Philippine Star newspaper.

"The government and our nation must now prepare for the next challenge from terrorist groups, who have discovered anew our soft centre and our vulnerability to pain," wrote publisher Max Soliven.

The government and our nation must now prepare for the next challenge from terrorist groups, who have discovered anew our soft centre and our vulnerability to pain

Philippine Star newspaper


Bron : BBC News

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