‘Convergence,’ ‘strategic balance’ key to peace in Mindanao — professor of Islamic Studies

“The Aquino government fails to grasp the historical roots of the Bangsamoro struggle.” – Dean Julkipli M. Wadi, Institute of Islamic Studies, University of the Philippines


MANILA –The exact worth of losses and damages to infrastructure and properties, the repercussion of lost lives, injuries and traumas, all these are still to be reckoned with in the coming days. But already, this war has exposed the attitude of the Aquino government toward the Bangsamoro people’s struggle for self-determination, the inadequacies of Nur Misuari of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF),as well as the problems in the handling of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) leaders of the peace negotiations as a process of achieving the Moro people’s aspirations. These, among others, were tackled by leaders of various progressive groups in a discussion this Tuesday September 24 facilitated by the Moro-Christian Peoples’ Alliance, Muslim intellectuals, Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan) and human rights and church advocates.

Many displaced people are now homeless. One communal tent in Zamboanga city’s largest evacuation centre, Joaquin Enriquez Memorial Sports Complex, houses over 50 families. (Photos by Karlos Manlupig, courtesy of ICRC)
Many displaced people are now homeless. One communal tent in Zamboanga city’s largest evacuation centre, Joaquin Enriquez Memorial Sports Complex, houses over 50 families. (Photos by Karlos Manlupig, courtesy of ICRC)

“The Aquino government fails to grasp the historical roots of the Bangsamoro struggle, and the place there of the MNLF,” said Julkipli M. Wadi, dean and associate professor of Institute of Islamic Studies of the University of the Philippines, Quezon City. Like others, Wadi blamed the handling of the Aquino government of the peace process for the bloody standoff in the picturesque southern city. He said there is a need to recover the “strategic balance” in how the Philippine government conducts peace negotiations with armed Moro organizations.

This balance, based on Wadi’s sharing, means the government should conduct the peace talks with “convergence”– or talking peace with the MNLF and MILF, as well as other groups. He said subsequent Philippine presidents after former president Fidel V. Ramos had flitted from talking with just one Muslim rebel group to another, losing hold of convergence in the process and, as a result, of the “strategic balance.” This, he said,has led to intermittent wars.

Balance means “you give breathing space to both camps, hindi ka nag-iitsa pwera” (without ignoring any group),” Wadi said. The Aquino government has, in effect, unilaterally terminated the GPH-MNLF-Organization of Islamic Countries Tripartite Review of the 1996 Final Peace Agreement.

This unilateral termination of the peace review resulted to Misuari’s declaration of Mindanao independence last month and the standoff in Zamboanga City since Sept. 9.

In Congress, Bayan Muna Representative Carlos Isagani Zarate has demanded a scrutiny of the performance of the Office of the Presidential Adviser on Peace Process (OPAPP) for its failure to address issues in the peace negotiations between the Government of the Philippines and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF).

“OPAPP’s tough stand against the MNLF in the peace negotiation has resulted to the bungling of the peace talks with the MNLF,” Zarate said.

Carol Pagaduan-Araullo, chairperson of Bayan, told Bulatlat.com that “The policy (of Aquino) is kill and file charges. He doesn’t want to admit or acknowledge the historical context of the Moro issue.”

But killing (Moros) and filing charges (against them) won’t work, said Araullo, adding “it will only create more problems.”

‘Calculated carnage’

By now, the Zamboanga standoff is “another grim chapter in the Moro people’s struggle,” as the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) said in a statement. The revolutionary group described the soon-to be concluded stand-off as a “carnage” that is to be added to the Bud Daho, Bud Bagsak, Jabiddah and Buldon carnages. These are incidents in history, like in Zamboanga today, where the “far-superior reactionary armed forces of the US-supported Philippine government subdued and vanquished the outnumbered, ill-equipped, ill-supplied Moro forces.”

The CPP described as shameless the “calculated carnage perpetrated by the Aquino government.” It accused Aquino of trying, through this, to divert the national attention away from the pork barrel scandal.

However, according to the CPP, the Aquino government only partly succeeded because the regime’s “display of ruthlessness in Zamboanga City” is “too reprehensible” for the public to ignore. The revolutionary group condemned “the US-Aquino regime’s naked militarist brutality, particularly in handling the Zamboanga crises with an overly huge number of both AFP and PNP troops.” They also condemned the aerial bombing and strafing by military aircraft against the MNLF fighters who, they noted, were clearly among the civilians. The CPP said the Aquino government’s handling of the crisis demonstrated its disregard for the safety of civilians and the Protocols of War.

Children recover at the paediatric ward of the temporary hospital set up at the Western Mindanao State University. (Photos by Karlos Manlupig, courtesy of ICRC)
Children recover at the paediatric ward of the temporary hospital set up at the Western Mindanao State University. (Photos by Karlos Manlupig, courtesy of ICRC)

By now, more than a hundred people (132) had been reported killed in the more than two-week armed fighting in Zamboanga City. More than 120,000 residents in several villages of Zamboanga City have been forcibly displaced from their homes and are currently being held in government-run evacuation centers where they are reportedly exposed to the elements or are forced to sleep under makeshift tents. Every day they are made to line up for hours to obtain food and water. Prospects for the displaced are looking very grim, said a Philippine Red Cross and International Red Cross joint operational update.

“Our house was completely razed by fire,” said Milagrosa Magalso, a 46-year-old mother of two who used to live in barangay Santa Catalina, one of the areas hardest hit by the fighting. “It’s hard to accept that we’ll have to start building our lives again from the ground up.” With thousands of houses completely burned down and public infrastructure having suffered significant damage as a result of the fighting, many civilians will never be able to return to their homes, the Red Cross reported.

There is yet no reliable data on whether the dead and injured were actual MNLF fighters or civilians. Human rights groups have complained that much of the updates and developments on the war are coming from the police and the military, who have been saying for the past week that they were nearly finished in “clearing” the city of MNLF fighters even as it conducted air strikes during the last few days.

The AFP has carried out air strikes, bombings and strafings, which have resulted in massive destruction to property and public infrastructure.

The Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), in another statement, urged the Filipino people, especially the people of Zamboanga, to hold the Aquino regime responsible for grave violations of human rights and international humanitarian law in the course of its siege against the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). They took to task the Aquino government for having employed excessive force, endangered the lives of hundreds of thousands of civilians and caused destruction to property and the people’s livelihoods.

“As a signatory to the Comprehensive Agreement on Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law (CARHRIHL), the Philippine government must comply with the high standards set by the agreement in relation to the conduct of its siege against the MNLF in Zamboanga City over the past several weeks,” said the CPP.

It noted that even though officials of the Aquino regime claim that the MNLF took civilian hostages when they were attacked by the AFP, “at no point did Aquino attempt to determine the actual number and identity of the hostages or seek the release of these hostages through negotiations with the MNLF forces. Instead, he has chosen to launch a massive armed siege with no clear plan of securing the safe passage of civilians.”

Noting as well how the Aquino government and its armed forces have largely maintained sole control of information about the siege against the MNLF, the CPP urged for an exhaustive investigation by disinterested parties of incidents of human rights abuses.

Members of the military were quoted as telling the media that some MNLF forces were burning down parts of Zamboanga City. However, other interviews with evacuees revealed it was in fact the members of the Armed Forces of the Philippines who were burning down parts of Zamboanga City. Sources in the area who refused to be named told Bulatlat.com that some of the burned down communities had been targets for demolition.

Using the crisis to justify the president’s pork

Now President Aquino is using the need to rehabilitate Zamboanga City to hold on to his pork barrel, the biggest of all pork.

Last weekend, President Aquino secured approval for the release of P3.89 billion ($90.465 million) from his Special Purpose Funds to help rehabilitate Zamboanga City. Malacañang spokesperson Abigail Valte has reportedly claimed that the allocation of funds for Zamboanga’s rehabilitation should put the critics of President Aquino’s discretionary funds to rest.

Langka Tanda, a 65-year-old widow, finds life at Zamboanga city’s largest evacuation centre difficult. “The food queues are very long and the heat unbearable,” said Langka. She lost her home in the fighting. (Photo by Karlos Manlupig, courtesy of ICRC)
Langka Tanda, a 65-year-old widow, finds life at Zamboanga city’s largest evacuation centre difficult. “The food queues are very long and the heat unbearable,” said Langka. She lost her home in the fighting. (Photo by Karlos Manlupig, courtesy of ICRC)

On the contrary, Gabriela Women Partylist Rep. Luzviminda Ilagan said in a statement, “The Zamboanga siege, or any calamity, natural or manmade, should not be used to justify the existence of the President’s Special Purpose Funds or Presidential Pork. Allowing such discretion and entitlement to any government official including the President is a recipe for an even bigger disaster, it is a formula for plunder.”

Bangsamoro struggle likely to intensify

What the Zamboanga crisis clearly established is that the Bangsamoro people’s aspiration for self-determination is still fiercely alive. But as a discussion led by Moro-Christian Peoples’ Alliance noted this Tuesday, this desire for self-determination seems to fall victim to the narrow interests of some Moro leaders who could be swayed by what they call as the Manila government into agreements that do not fully satisfy the Moro people’s aspirations.

Wadi shared that when he visited Misuari in jail in Sta Rosa, Laguna, he asked Misuari why he accepted the ARMM. (Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao, a creation of 1996 peace agreement forged by the MNLF with the Philippines government then headed by former military general turned president Fidel V. Ramos.) Misuari reportedly told Wadi he accepted ARMM to use it as “a bridge,” to help the Moro.

“But I told him,” Wadi said, “in doing that, you went inside a cage.” Misuari reportedly replied that “that’s needed.” Wadi recalled that Misuari had added: “Don’t swim against the current.”

Today, Misuari and the peace agreement he signed with the Philippine government are apparently being rejected by the Aquino government. The latter not only unilaterally terminated its review of the 1996 agreement, but it also refused to talk peace with Nur’s MNLF. It even declared that it is replacing ARMM with the Bangsamoro Juridical Entity, as provided for in the framework agreement it recently signed with the MILF.

The MILF negotiating panels had, in previous interviews with Bulatlat.com, said they are talking peace not just for the MILF but also for other Moro groups. But, Wadi of the Institute of Islamic Studies said, if you listen to the positions taken by the MILF since the Sabah issue (early this year), it appears that the MILF is already beholden to the Philippine government and to Malaysia. Wadi said the MILF is gambling with the framework agreement it signed with the Aquino government.

Wadi said regaining the “strategic balance” in the government’s peace negotiations with Moro groups would help achieve a state of less destructiveness and more stability in Mindanao, but he expressed doubts if that could still be regained after the Zamboanga armed clashes. He also said it would have been better for the Philippine government if it had performed the role of facilitator as well rather than just a negotiator.

On the other hand, Tony Liongson of MCPA asked if such a convergence-seeking, negotiator-facilitator Philippine government peace panel is feasible, given this kind of government supported by the US.

In a statement, the CPP said that “until the reactionary regime provides the condition requisite for genuine autonomy or self-determination of the Moro people, history would only repeat itself,” and there would be more carnages, more violence, and more struggle of heroic Moros subdued and vanquished just like that.

Still, the CPP expressed optimism that despite the reactionary (Aquino) regime’s divide-and-rule tactic, the true aspirations of the Moro people would still bear fruit. “We are most certain that, should the GPH succeed to encumber one group, others would rise in its place to continue the struggle to resolve the fundamental problems of the Moro people,” the CPP said. It recalled that the MILF split from the MNLF when the former deemed that the MNLF had compromised the demands and interests of the Bangsamoro people. Presently, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) also split from the MILF for the same reasons. Meanwhile, another round of armed clashes, this time between AFP troops and BIFF fighters, have been reported. (https://www.bulatlat.com)

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