Clueless in Zamboanga

Vantage Point | BusinessWorld

As of this writing (Sept. 19), the President of the Philippines, Benigno Simeon Aquino III, had been five days in Zamboanga, where, according to Palace sources, as Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces he was “directing military operations” against the minute force of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) which his tanks, attack helicopters and ground troops had yet to completely rout after all of 10 days.

The word from Malacañang was that Mr. Aquino had nothing to say about the filing of plunder charges against three senators, several congressmen, and at least two dozen other people supposedly involved in the misuse of pork barrel funds because he had no access to newspapers — putting that outstanding piece of idiocy among such other gems from Palace spokesmen as that in late 2010 when Mr. Aquino, they said, could not be reached at the US because he had left his cellphone at home.

That bit of nonsense aside, Mr. Aquino’s Mindanao presence echoes that of Joseph Estrada’s, who, in 2000, visited the scenes of fighting between government forces and the forces of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) against whom he had declared total war. We don’t know if, like Estrada then, Mr. Aquino has been in camouflage uniform and packing a gun since he landed in Zamboanga. But he does seem to share with that armchair warrior the same fascination with resolving crises with the use of armed force. Let us grant, however, that his presence there at least suggests that the President of the Philippines wants to be where the action is, we hope not to indulge his passion for guns by getting off a shot or two from his AK-47, but to see for himself what’s happening to the people of Zamboanga.

It’s far from the pretty picture most of us are familiar with as far as the city of flowers is concerned. A hundred and four people have been killed since fighting broke out in Sept. 9, 11 of the dead being soldiers, three policemen, seven non-combatants including children, and 83 MNLF fighters. Another 193 have been wounded, of which 105 are soldiers, 12 policemen, 67 non-combatants, and nine MNLF fighters.

As distressing as these numbers are, particularly those relating to the toll on the civilian population, a huge humanitarian crisis has also developed in the form of over 17,000 families displaced, of which some 15,000 are in crowded, unsanitary evacuation sites where there are shortfalls in food, tents, medical supplies and sanitary facilities but where they will have to stay for an indefinite period because their houses have been razed and entire communities erased from the map. The city itself will take years to recover from the losses in lives, livelihood, and social service facilities like schools and hospitals.

The MNLF is taking the brunt of blame for sending its forces into Zamboanga City so they could hoist their flag at city hall. MNLF Chair Nur Misuari is being accused of trying to call attention to his declaration of independence last August, thereby triggering an armed response from the military and the police — apparently with the sanction of the local and national governments, neither of which, we can gauge from their respective statements, could countenance the MNLF presence.

Misuari may not have been in an entirely reasonable frame of mind when he sent his troops into Zamboanga (one of his spokespersons did confirm that they were acting on his orders and direction). But did the Aquino administration’s response, echoing Estrada’s all out war policy in 2000, even consider the costs of a purely military approach to the crisis?

No one can be blamed for suspecting that Mr. Aquino yielded to the advice of his generals, in violation of the principle that war and politics are too important to leave to the decision of generals. Both require statesmen, who, if they are indeed that and not clueless politicians, wage war only with the greatest reluctance and only after having exhausted political and other non-violent means to resolve crises. Wars, after all cost, and the entire country and the world are seeing the consequences in the bullet-riddled schools, mosques, hospitals, and churches of Zamboanga, the smoldering ruins of houses, the screams of the wounded, the deaths of children, and the wailing of widows and orphans.

Mr. Aquino, however, would probably be more focused on the costs to the country’s tourism program rather than on human suffering. After all, he has often touted tourism as a major source of income for this country’s poor. Unfortunately, Zamboanga has just gone down the tubes as a tourist destination, and is unlikely to immediately recover from the CNN image of it as a war zone.

This is the “mess” former President Fidel V. Ramos was referring to when he berated Mr. Aquino for his handling — i.e., his opting for a purely military solution rather than negotiations — of the Zamboanga crisis. But Mr. Aquino’s mishandling goes farther than that, when, in the first place, he described the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao — the result of years of negotiations between the administrations of his own mother and of her successor Fidel Ramos, and the final agreement between the MNLF and the government in 1996 — as “a failed experiment” to justify its replacement with the Bangsamoro entity in the framework agreement between his administration and the MILF.

The MILF is not incidentally the apple of the eye of Mr. Aquino’s US patrons, who have been in the very thick of the peace negotiations with the MILF as a not-disinterested observer for at least two reasons: the Bangsamoro entity is likely to allow the free entry of US multinationals eager to exploit the region’s natural resources, as well as the establishment, if it so wishes, of US military bases. These are possibilities close to Mr. Aquino’s own heart.

Mr. Aquino’s statements and his administration’s relegating the MNLF to the status of spectator rather than participant in his exclusionary approach to peace in Mindanao was bound to provoke MNLF resentment. Only an idiot with no understanding of either the politics of the region or of the human heart would have thought otherwise.

As horrendous as the consequences of the military option in the “resolution” of the Zamboanga crisis are, it’s not going to be the end of it. The MNLF is far from the spent force Mr. Aquino and his military cohort assume it to be. It can continue to harass and otherwise engage government security forces in those parts of Mindanao, such as Sulu and Basilan, where it can join forces with such groups as the BIFF (Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters) and even the Abu Sayyaf.

The mess Mr. Aquino is in only looks as if it were Nur Misuari’s creation. It is of his own making, as Ramos has made clear in his statements. Maybe we don’t have a statesman or even a politician in Malacañang, but a frustrated general who’s into guns in more ways than one.

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Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro)
Published in Business World
September 19, 2013

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3 Comments - Write a Comment

  1. Your opinion against President Aquino’s military option in Zamboanga’s crisis is lacking, to my mind, one angle, that is, negotiation in the side of strength, not in the side of weakness. Misuari’s move was so daring and senseless that government, in order to nudge Misuari to his logical mind, needs military force, rather than pure political negotiation and statesmanship. A pure peace talk without a show of force can never make Misuari respect the punches of our legitimate Government. Bassar Assad of Syria, for example, went to the table because of Obama’s determined military action. We can never soften the insane toughness of Misuari over a cup of coffee without a show of force. The stages of the whole process must be military action first before resorting to a purely political solution to the problem. I believe that President Aquino did the right thing.

  2. Yeah, why don’t we give peace a chance, let them go home with their arms, forget everything, and then after a few years repeat this same situation again? Nice idea, right?

    NO! It’s pure idiocy.

    The Malaysians showed just how foolish the Sultan of Sulu was to try and invade a country. Why don’t we show Misuari just how foolish it is to invade a major Philippine city with arms? Can we do that now, please? Or are we yet to go the tiresome and unproductive route of “Give Peace A Chance” again?

  3. Clueless would be a better description of this writer. I don’t find any logic in any portion of this document. Is he blaming Aquino for the Zamboanga “mess”? Is he saying to make peace with these rebels after burning and pillaging the city? Let them go like in 2001 and pray they don’t come back again? They do the crime, they should face the consequences. That is the best and only solution.
    If we let them go we should remove our courts and just let go of any hostage-taking criminals for peace`s sake.

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