Largely out of sight while the world and the United States wrestle with the problems of Syria, a conflict between the Christian government and Muslim rebels on the Philippines island of Mindanao, in the city of Zamboanga, has continued since Monday, claiming at least 16 lives.
The United States has 600 troops stationed rotationally in Zamboanga, training and reinforcing Philippines armed forces there. They are so far not engaged in the battle for control of the city and the freeing of about 160 hostages held by rebel Moro National Liberation Front fighters.
Consistent with President Barack Obama's "pivot to Asia," Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel was in the Philippines last month seeking to increase the number of U.S. forces, ships and aircraft authorized by the Philippine government to be there. The Philippines were in effect a U.S. colony from 1898 to 1946. It kicked all U.S. forces out in 1992, but various agreements have allowed some to return since 1999.
It is clear that an enhanced U.S. military role in that island nation of 98 million would strengthen its hand in trying to stem the expansion of Chinese influence in the region, as well as help its government, led by President Benigno "Noy Noy" Aquino III, in its long struggle with Islamic separatist and other elements.
The population breakdown in the Philippines is roughly 90 percent Christian and 5 percent Muslim. The MNLF was founded in 1971 and since then various accords between it and the government over 15 years of negotiations have sought to regularize relations, in general by giving more autonomy to the Muslims. The most recent was concluded in July. A Muslim Philippine state, Bangsamoro, is scheduled to be created by 2016.
In the meantime, what started as an incident in Zamboanga appears difficult to end. What is critical from an American point of view is that U.S. forces stationed there not be drawn into what is an intra-Philippine problem that its government is fully capable of resolving itself.