Bangsamoro after Mamasapano: Don’t muddy the issues of war and peace

Vantage Point | BusinessWorld

Some broadcast news reports were calling it “a massacre” hardly after the last shots had been fired. Not to be outdone, their colleagues in print said it was “a slaughter.”

In the days that followed, the Philippine news media were engaged in a race for scoops, in the process disseminating unconfirmed reports from even the most obviously biased sources that quickly dissipated the goodwill that had been generated by the signing of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro in March last year.

By whatever name it’s called, rather than an argument against the Agreement and for war, the Mamasapano incident — in which 44 operatives of the Philippine National Police Special Action Force (PNP-SAF), nine Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) fighters, and four civilians including a child were killed, and thousands displaced — is one of the strongest reasons among many others for the necessity to see the peace process through.

Without a peace agreement, incidents of this kind will continue to happen. And yet, there has been no absence of voices — even from the government, including Congress itself — implying that bringing the Agreement to its final stage of normalizing life and governance in those areas that would constitute the Bangsamoro autonomous region can no longer be justified because of the “atrocity.”

Ferdinand Marcos Jr. (unfortunately a senator of this unlucky Republic), for example, canceled hearings on the Bangsamoro Basic Law his committee on local government was scheduled to hold.

“We cannot, in conscience, proceed with these hearings while a cloud of serious doubt hangs over the security situation in the South,” Marcos said, adding that “a peace agreement cannot be legislated under the threat of such extreme violence. Violence has no room in a civilized society.”

And yet the need to end violence in at least some parts of this “civilized society” could have been better served by his holding the hearings on the Basic Law as scheduled, and even accelerating their pace, the point being the imperative of legislative action to reduce the possibility of further violence.

Apparently clueless over the process mandated by the Agreement, among whose most vital steps is the passage of the Basic Law, Marcos went on to say, in effect, that the MILF should have laid down its arms before the Agreement was signed — a contentious issue that had thankfully been overcome during the long years of negotiations, and for which the Agreement has specific provisions on the decommissioning of MILF weapons.

“If we have been driven to the first step in that process wherein we have not put our guns down, then there is a distinct problem in negotiating that,” said Marcos. “There is one side of the table wherein there is still military and violent action being undertaken against government forces. How will that affect our discussions here [in Congress]?”

The answer to that question is by driving home to the members of that body the urgency of discussing, finalizing and approving a Basic Law that both the MILF and the rest of the country (including its present political system) can live with — or, failing that, by quickly resolving whatever issues, whether constitutional or otherwise, need to be addressed.

If Marcos and other lawmakers put the brakes on a process vital to the implementation of the Framework Agreement when they should have accelerated its pace, then pique and an eye on media mileage they could gain by pandering to resurgent anti-Muslim bias drove prospective presidential candidate Alan Peter Cayetano and J.V. Ejercito to withdraw their sponsorship of the Basic Law.

But it was Ejercito’s father’s unsolicited advice to wage “total war” against the MILF and similar groups that most demonstrated the extent of that wing of the political class’ cluelessness about statecraft (and deeply ingrained anti-Muslim bias).

Convicted but pardoned plunderer Joseph Estrada, who has managed to emerge from the labyrinths of the bizarre political system to become mayor of Manila, proposed the same approach to address Muslim demands for autonomy that he had adopted during his short tenure in Malacañang — an approach he would have realized is bound to fail if he had had even a brief acquaintance with Philippine history.

The fact is that the Bangsamoro has never been conquered — not by Spanish sword or US Krag, and certainly not by the US-supplied arms of any Philippine government since 1946. No armed movement with legitimate grievances — and therefore sustained by mass support — has ever been decisively defeated since that period, at most only suffering temporary setbacks. Defeated in the 1950s and most of its leaders captured, the Hukbong Mapagpalaya ng Bayan (HMB, or Huks) was reinvented under another name, and guided by a younger, more ideologically and politically erudite leadership and has become even stronger since then.

State appreciation of the reality — knowledge gained during the martial law period and after — that armed social movements driven by legitimate aims cannot be defeated by purely military means, indeed drove at least four Philippine administrations to enter into negotiations with the Moro National Liberation Front and the MILF, and is the subtext of the on-again, off-again peace talks with the National Democratic Front of the Philippines.

Nevertheless, the Mamasapano incident has led to the dangerous resurgence of anti-Muslim bias — a bias that unscrupulous politicians and other groups seeking to scuttle the peace negotiations and delaying the passage of the Basic Law or amending it to meaninglessness can exploit for their own purposes.

In this country of constantly shifting political interests, alliances and agendas, where a multiplicity of forces eager to profit from or even instigate the worst human disasters thrive, much will depend on how the media can provide the reliable information and meaningful analysis that can sustain the need for the country to focus on why forging a just and sustainable peace agreement with armed social movements is urgent and necessary.

So far, however, there is no evidence that the media are discharging this responsibility. A duty thrust upon them in a country besieged by centuries of violence. What is in evidence instead are a confused and confusing media, pushed this way and that by the conflicting claims of State institutions (the police, the military) and officials (Cabinet secretaries such as Manuel Roxas II and President Aquino himself); clandestine groups and individuals disguised as disinterested observers (the assets of the various groups involved in the Mamasapano clash); and, of course, the ever-present hand of the Empire (this time in the form of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation).

If the Mamasapano clash was not part of a conspiracy to muddy the already murky issues of war and peace in this country, it might as well have been.

Luis V. Teodoro is the deputy director of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility

Twitter: @luisteodoro

Published in Business World
February 5, 2015

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