All Quiet in Zambo
I was pondering the end of the siege of Zamboanga city last weekend. The nearly three week conflict is nearly forgotten nowadays despite the some 100,000 people who were displaced, and the dramatic scenes of poorly provisioned soldiers and policemen forced to buy food and water from corner shops. Hopes of establishing the Bangsamoro Republik, an independent Muslim State, were dashed by the brave filipino’s of the AFP and police, despite the incredible corruption and incompetence of their leadership. This incredible event did not take place shortly after the second world war, or the bloody (for the third world) second half of the twentieth century, but two weeks ago.
Certainly the drama surrounding the Syrian use of Chemical weapons and Putin’s masterful political maneuvering had something to do with media blackout, but that explanation alone does not suffice. Near the end of September, while the city of Zamboanga was engulfed in flames and firefights, a mall in Kenya was attacked by terrorists in spectacular and well publicized attack. Why then did an occupied city not gather as much attention as an occupied shopping Mall?
The boilerplate liberal responses are problematic. Racism is an inadequate explanation because the combatants in both cases were non-whites. An adherence to political correctness could explain why dead black Africans were given more sympathy than dead Catholic South East Asians (proximate term: some Filipino’s don’t accept the word Asian for themselves). Then again, the Muslim insurrectionists could fit very well into the oppressed minority role that the media loves. It therefore seems that conventional left and right American political categories are insufficient in explaining the Media blackout.
I think the proper way to view this phenomenon is from a political warfare perspective; the shadowy intersection of violence and communication where political goals are paramount. The first thing that is clear from this perspective, is that Al-Shabaab is doing much better in the reputation and political importance areas. It is a widely feared organization that is known for violence and effectiveness. The MNLF is known mostly only by area experts and Filipino’s, and have a reputation for extorting locals and losing to the Filipino Army. Even their name is tellingly incompetent. Any organization that has “National Liberation Front” in it, obviously doesn’t understand that moniker has a very cold war flavor – like borscht. Their splinter group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front does slightly better, but when your organization’s acronym is better known as a crude term for attractive older women, its hard to be taken seriously. Al-Shabaab, on the other hand, sounds foreign and menacing to western ears, and when you are a 21st century terrorist organization, it’s better to be intimidating to the folks on CNN. Al-Shabab’s leadership obviously has a better grasp of contemporary media dynamics, branding, and their importance to your chosen political cause.
Basically, the Filipino guerrilla’s need a better marketing department.