“Someone has to be held accountable for this humanitarian crisis, where thousands are made to suffer and children are getting sick in evacuation centers.” – Neil Murad, Suara Bangsamoro
By MARYA SALAMAT
MANILA – As war and reported abuses in Zamboanga continue to rage, progressive groups urge for an immediate cease fire and an investigation on why matters came to this point. Progressive groups that include InPeace Mindanao, Suara Bangsamoro, Bayan, KMU, Gabriela Women Partylist and Bayan Muna Partylist said, in separate statements, that the ongoing war in the southern city benefits not the average Filipino, not the Moro people and certainly not the residents of Zamboanga.
The labor group KMU said this “war,” in fact, is more for the benefit of the pork scandal-ridden administration of President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III, and to a limited extent, it serves the interest of Nur Misuari and the faction of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) aligned with him.
The armed conflict in Zamboanga City was perfectly timed with the second broad Luneta protests against the pork barrel system, noted the KMU. Various groups denounced Aquino’s military “solution” in Zamboanga City. Neil Murad, spokesperson of Suara Bangsamoro, wondered why the MNLF-planned rally erupted into a full blown battle in Zamboanga City, when its rally in Davao City last month had been peaceful, and both activities had the same purpose for the MNLF.
Murad said evacuees they talked to in Zamboanga want the crisis to end immediately.
The Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), in an earlier statement emailed to media, described as “flimsy and unacceptable” the claims by Aquino’s security officials that it launched an offensive against the MNLF rebels because it could not allow it to raise its banner in the city. The CPP also criticized Misuari “and his clique of elite Moro leaders for making use of the cause of the Moro people’s struggle for national liberation to lend credibility to his armed adventures.”
In Congress, the Bayan Muna Partylist filed a resolution on Thursday September 19, calling for a Congressional probe on what prompted the Moro National Liberation Front to enter Zamboanga City, leading to the present standoff. This came amid calls from peace advocates and human rights groups for an independent probe on reported violation of international humanitarian law during while engaged in gun battle.
Gabriela Women’s Party Rep. Emmi De Jesus deplored yesterday the “hardline position” adopted by President Aquino when he declared that the only choice for the MNLF is to surrender amid the continuing tragedy in Zamboanga City.
“Aquino’s command to the MNLF to talk peace and cease their fire, even amid the automatic shooting mode on day one displayed by his armed minions, is an obvious political gaffe,” De Jesus said. De Jesus further questioned the reasons for the war in Zamboanga as she noted media reports about the discovery of some areas where gunfire from the government side keeps raging even where there were no armed MNLF insurgents.
Costly, preventable conflict
The war in Zamboanga City is proving to be very costly for the Filipino people as thousands of Zamboanga City residents suffer various abuses being committed by both the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the retreating forces of the Moro National Liberation Front. As of Sept. 20, the toll from the fighting between the Muslim rebels and government forces, which began on September 9, included dozens killed and wounded, 10,000 houses burned, and 120,000 residents displaced. Many civilians are still being held hostage by the rebels.
Children pay their own steep price, said Carlos Conde of Human Rights Watch. Children are being accused of and paraded by state forces as MNLF “child warriors,” even if the children denied it. Over the past few weeks, children also suffered trauma and endured risks as they are held hostages, detained, caught in tn crossfire, rendered homeless and unable to go to school. “Long after the guns go silent and the soldiers go home, the children of Zamboanga will wrestle with the traumas of these days of violence,” Conde said.
In an earlier statement by Human Rights Watch, 10 days since the Zambo fighting began, it reported numerous cases showing how Philippines security forces and Muslim rebels have committed serious abuses during fighting in the southern city of Zamboanga. After the MNLF took over five coastal villages on September 9, 2013, it reportedly took dozens of residents hostage, but many have since been released or have escaped. However, the Philippine military and police have allegedly tortured or otherwise mistreated suspected rebels in custody, said the HRW report.
Critics said the war that is still resulting in these abuses could have been prevented.
Instead of simply allowing as before the planned protest action in Zamboanga City by some MNLF members, the Aquino regime launched a siege against the MNLF fighters, resulting in an armed standoff, in complete disregard of the welfare and safety of the civilian residents in the area, the Communist Party of the Philippines said in an earlier statement. The group blamed the Aquino regime for causing the forcible evacuation of civilian residents under threat of armed action. It also revealed that the US military contingent in Zamboanga—the Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines (JSOTF-P)—based inside Camp Navarro, has taken advantage of the military standoff to fly its surveillance drones in violation of Philippine sovereign airspace.
The siege by the AFP against the MNLF forces has resulted in a huge humanitarian crisis, with the lives of hundreds of thousands of people endangered, entire civilian populations forcibly evacuated, residents’ human rights abused and economic activity put on hold.
“A confrontation in Zamboanga in which the rebels hid behind hostages and the army fired on them shows how ugly this fighting became,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Both sides need to do all they can to prevent further loss of civilian life.”
In separate rallies in Manila late last week, various groups including the multisectoral group BAYAN reiterated calls of peace advocates nationwide for an immediate ceasefire between the two parties in the armed conflict in Zamboanga City. The ceasefire should pave the way for securing civilians in the area. More than 112,000 residents have been displaced by the fighting as of September 18, according to the Department of Social Welfare and Development.
“An all-out military offensive by the government is not a solution to the crisis as this will continuously endanger the civilian population. Already, the civilians in areas where the armed conflict rages are considered members of the MNLF unless proven otherwise. This lays the groundwork for possible violations of human rights and international humanitarian law,” Bayan said in a statement.
Ugly state war/diversion
Interviews by Human Rights Watch of Zamboanga villagers held hostage, MNLF rebel suspects, relatives of victims, police officials, and officials from the Commission on Human Rights revealed the “ugliness” of this government-initiated fighting, or “diversion.”
On September 18, Philippine authorities announced that rebellion charges were being prepared against 70 of the 93 suspected members of the MNLF in custody. A dozen detainees who spoke to Human Rights Watch alleged mistreatment in custody by the police or military.
Human Rights Watch interviewed six suspected MNLF rebels jailed at the Zamboanga Central Police Office who alleged that they had been mistreated. Five said police or military agents interrogated them by putting a plastic bag over their head, suffocating them. They said they were also punched and kicked by their interrogators. The suspects said their interrogators sought to force them to confess to being MNLF members. One told Human Rights Watch he admitted as much because he “couldn’t stand the pain anymore.” An elderly detainee alleged that his interrogators blindfolded him and dunked his head into a toilet bowl twice. Another said alcohol was poured into his nose to get him to confess.
At the Philippine National Police’s Camp Batalla in Zamboanga City, three men and two boys aged 14 and 17 were handcuffed to each other since September 12, the HRW said. These men were arrested after police found a gun on one of the adults in the group. The five said they knew each other as bottled water vendors at the city port but denied being members of the MNLF. Police officials said on September 18 that the five were no longer suspects and would soon be released.
Police officials told Human Rights Watch that they had arrested dozens of people since the fighting erupted but had since released most of them. One of those arrested was a man with a mental disability who was accused of being an MNLF rebel. HRW said the police at first refused to release him or permit his family to see him, but eventually freed him without filing any charge.
Under Philippine law, authorities must charge criminal suspects within 36 hours or release them. Most of the rebel suspects in custody had not been charged after up to 10 days in cramped jails, the HRW noted. Interior Secretary Mar Roxas told a media briefing on September 18 that charges had not been brought because the offices of the Department of Justice in Zamboanga City have been closed since the crisis began.
“The government has a responsibility to ensure that everyone taken into custody, including suspected rebels, are treated humanely,” Adams said. “Closing down the Justice Department offices is no excuse for seeing that those arrested are properly charged or released.”
Using civilians, disregarding civilians
The MNLF rebels that took over the coastal villages at one time held perhaps hundreds of residents hostage in different locations and used them as human shields to deter Philippine army attacks, Human Rights Watch said.