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The elusive peace in Mindanao

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MILF rebels on patrol

President Benigno “P-Noy” Aquino III has been criticized for his inaction in the wake of the death of 19 Army Special Forces troops who were reportedly ambushed by rebels last October 18, 2011 in Al-Barka, Basilan province.  Greatly outnumbered, 40 soldiers fought a nine-hour battle against an estimated 400 heavily armed members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).  In addition to the dead soldiers, 11 were injured.  The MILF reportedly lost six members.  It was one of the deadliest encounters with the MILF rebels since 2008.

*Who fired first?
Since there is an existing ceasefire agreement between the government and the MILF, the question is: who fired first?  MILF spokesman Mohagher Iqbal claimed that the military deliberately attacked the MILF group and accused them of intruding into their “area of temporary stay.”  Claiming that the government violated the ceasefire agreement, Iqbal indicated that MILF is going to file a protest-complaint before the International Monitoring Team.  However, an Army spokesman disputed Iqbal’s allegation.  He said that the troops were on a mission to serve an arrest warrant to wanted Abu Sayyaf commander Long Malat in Barangay Cambug — four kilometers away from MILF’s “area of temporary stay” – when they were ambushed.

Two days later, on October 20, it was reported that elements of the MILF launched strings of atrocities against police and military targets in Zamboanga Sibugay province, killing at least eight soldiers and policemen.  The MILF spokesman said the attacks were in retaliation for the Army’s “indiscriminate shelling” of Muslim villages, which forced the villagers to evacuate to nearby towns.

Then, three days later, on October 23, rebels believed to belong to MILF ambushed a military convoy in Sultan Naga Dimaporo, Lanao del Norte province killing two soldiers and wounding five others.  An Army spokesman said that if the MILF were behind the ambush, then it would be a clear ceasefire violation because the MILF doesn’t have an “area of temporary stay” in that town.

The Army also reported that in another incident on October 23, about 40 rebels ambushed of a group of rubber plantation workers in Sumisip, Basilan province in which five workers and an off-duty militiaman were killed and eight others were injured.

*“Areas of temporary stay”
The MILF’s “areas of temporary stay” (ATS) were established when the cease agreement between the government and the MILF was signed in July 1997.  The ATS are monitored by the Malaysian-led International Monitoring Team (IMT), which investigates ceasefire violations as well as military intrusions.   In other words, the ATS are safe havens where the 11,000-strong MILF enjoys virtual autonomy without any government interference.  The government’s military forces are not allowed to enter or conduct pursuit operations inside the ATS.  The ATS are, in essence, inviolable territories of the MILF for as long as the ceasefire agreement is in effect.
In 2000, then President Joseph “Erap” Estrada abolished the ceasefire agreement and waged an all-out war against the MILF.  In response, the MILF declared “jihad” or holy war against the government.  When then Vice President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo took over the presidency in 2001, the government and the MILF entered into another ceasefire agreement and resumed the peace talks.

*“All-out war”
Recently, Erap told the media that the peace talks have been going on for 30 years without achieving anything good for the country.  The only solution, he said, is an all-out war against the MILF rebels like what he did in 2000. “We have to wage war to earn peace,” said Erap.

Erap found an ally in his former nemesis, now Sen. Panfilo Lacson who urged P-Noy to do what Erap did in 2000. “It’s time for P-Noy to do an Erap,” said Lacson.  Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile also urged P-Noy to stop the peace talks because the MILF doesn’t seem to be sincere in achieving peace.

*“All-out justice”
But P-Noy is not sold on waging an all-out war against the MILF.  He said that it would not help improve the situation in Mindanao.  Instead, last October 24, he vowed an “all-out justice” campaign against the “lawless elements” responsible for the skirmishes in Basilan, Zamboanga Sibugay, and Lanao del Norte, which have claimed the lives of 34 soldiers and civilians.

He said, “We will not pursue all-out war; we will instead pursue all-out justice. All-out war is indiscriminate and borne out of anger. All-out justice is sober and fair; it is based on the rule of law, and leads to lasting peace.” P-Noy didn’t blame the MILF for the bloody encounters but only the “lawless elements.”  But how is he going to hunt down the “lawless elements” of MILF?  That would be like fishing for a few cockeyed fish in a school of fish.

P-Noy’s ambivalence doesn’t bode well with the military particularly those in the thick of battle in Mindanao.  Although he ordered his reasons for not waging an all-out war to “cascade” down the ranks, there is widespread demoralization in the military.  He is perceived as a dovish and weak commander-in-chief.  Rumors of a coup plot are spreading like wild fire in the military.  Several lawmakers advised P-Noy not to shrug off the rumors and to seriously address the morale problem sweeping the armed forces.

*Quo vadis, P-Noy?
But regardless of whether it’s going to be an “all-out war” or “all-out justice,” P-Noy is faced with a big problem: There will be no peace in Mindanao unless he can bring all the warring factions to the peace table.  He cannot leave any group out; otherwise, there would never be peace in the region.  The history of Mindanao tells us that.

In my article, “The price of peace in Mindanao” (PerryScope, August 18, 2011), I wrote: “The real challenge for Aquino would be how to bring the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) together within the framework of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).  That was the spirit of the law creating ARMM.”

Ultimately, P-Noy has to deal with the biggest challenge of all: There will be no peace in Mindanao unless the issue of social and economic justice is resolved. However, even if peace were achieved, it would not last long without prosperity.

At the end of the day, P-Noy should give the military full authority and discretion to protect the soldiers on the ground and concentrate in looking for ways and means to achieve peace — and prosperity — for our Muslim brothers and sisters in Mindanao.


By Perry Diaz




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