HONOLULU, Hawai‘i (July 15, 2002 – East-West Wire)---Growing poverty, lack of education and ineffective leadership in the Southern Philippines will make it easy for Abu Sayyaf to recruit and emerge once again to raise fear in residents there, an expert on Mindanao said.

"The Abu Sayyaf is too weak to be a force now, but they will rise again if conditions remain the same," said Marites Danguilan Vitug, editor-in-chief of Newsbreak, a leading news magazine in the Philippines. "It's happened before."

Vitug, an award-winning author of several books on Mindanao and the Southern Philippines, spoke recently at the East-West Center. She said there is still "intense fear" in Basilan, where the Abu Sayyaf recruits in remote areas and where the local leadership is ineffective. "No local groups call for accountability because they are too scared."

More than 600 U.S. troops, sent to the Southern Philippines to train the Philippine military in counter terrorism tactics against the Abu Sayyaf, are scheduled to leave by July 31. U.S. authorities claim Abu Sayyaf, a radical Muslim group based in the country's southern islands, has links to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network. Others say they are just a kidnapping-for-profit ring. The group held a U.S. missionary couple hostage for a year. The husband and another hostage were killed recently in a rescue attempt by Philippine troops.

Vitug said there is no need to send U.S. forces back to the Southern Philippines. The annual training exercise held elsewhere in the Philippines plus equipment are sufficient aid in the future.

Instead there is "need for a moderate Muslim voice in the Philippines. There is deep prejudice against Muslims by Christians. Abu Sayyaf gave them a bad name."

Vitug said the communist New People's Army is also growing again as a serious security threat "because of poverty, not ideology." The NPA has no formal ties to Muslim groups, and although NPA rebels are listed as terrorists, the Philippine government does not want U.S. troops to intervene against them.

Vitug's talk was co-sponsored by the Pacific and Asian Affairs Council and the Center for Philippine Studies at the University of Hawai‘i-Manoa.

*Vitug can be reached in Manila at 632-687-5523 or emailed at marites@newsbreak.com.ph 

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