Philippines' Aquino Misses Point on Mindanao

The Philippine Commander-in-Chief spoke to the nation on television three days after 44 of the national police’s Special Action Force were killed in central Mindanao after a 12-hour gunfight on Sunday morning, Jan. 25. Photos of the carnage shocked the country.

Muslim rebels stripped the dead of their uniforms and took away their arms, stealing whatever possessions they had on them.

President Benigno Aquino’s voice, reading a prepared speech, was devoid of emotion, seemingly rushing to get the task over with. What did he have to say – that the operation, which was planned to arrest two wanted terrorists, had gone horribly wrong?

The police commandos died as a result; they were heroes in the line of duty so let’s have a day of mourning, and then let’s get back to work. Because what’s at stake is the peace process that has taken years to reach a point close to becoming a reality for a Bangsamoro homeland in Mindanao, after waves of wars, violence and conflict.

The law giving autonomy to Muslim Filipinos in four provinces is in the hands of Congress, and if that is to be stopped, “the status quo will remain,” he said. “If that happens, we cannot hope for anything but the same results.”

The Commander-in-Chief has entered a forest and can’t seem to find his way out. Mindanao, the weight of its history, its complex narrative, has once again shattered hopes and illusions for many who wanted peace. It’s as if we are seeing the same old story, predicting an end before it could start. But the president, the leader of the armed forces and the police, has lost himself.

The rebels that killed his men were from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and its smaller, breakaway group, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF). Having signed a historic peace agreement – yet another – with the MILF barely a year ago, Aquino said, “great strides” have already made both sides “trust one another.” Let’s be friends again, he seemed to be saying. He added that he was “hopeful” that the MILF would show evidence of their solidarity by getting to the bottom of this bloody event.

There, for a moment, was a stunned silence.

At the very least ask them to return the firearms. At the very least ask them to surrender the terrorists so they could be brought to justice. One, by the name of Zulkipli bin Hir, is a Malaysian training local Islamists in making bombs who was also allegedly responsible for the bombing in Bali that killed 202 people; another is Absulbasit Usman, a Filipino who was said to have been involved in bombing incidents in Mindanao. There have been warrants for their arrests for the past dozen years.

At the very least, Mr. President, put them in their right place.

You’d spelled out the tactical blunder; obviously there was one, a big one that pinned the blame on a lack of coordination under a cease-fire mechanism. Where on paper does it say that you have to tell the MILF you’re about to catch high-value targets? But yes, the police should have known better than to walk into their lair.

Any veteran of the Mindanao wars will tell you that the marshes of Maguindanao province where the terrorists were hiding in the town of Mamasapano is difficult terrain to navigate, it’s the ideal enclave. It was no surprise, indeed none at all, that the elite police unit had lost their element of surprise and so it happened: the single biggest loss of government forces in recent memory.

As Commander-in-Chief, wouldn’t that be enough to jolt you?

You’ve heard the warmongers calling for vengeance, drumming into our ears the chants of war. That came especially from former president Joseph Estrada, the movie actor who flushed out the MILF from their camps in the grand military campaign of his time 15 years ago, driving the rebels to the fringes and forcing them – eventually – to sit at the negotiating table. What an atrocious irony it is that the worst president we’ve had (himself driven out in a popular coup) had gained a strategic victory vis-à-vis the rebels.

For the president, peace is victory and it has to be done before his term ends next year, so there’s little time left. But now this mess: do you see any other way out without retaliation? Does a signed piece of paper guarantee peace after all this? What is peace in Mindanao if you don’t understand what it means for the people?

In the firefight, the MILF and the BIFF banded together in a pintakasi – all-for-one against the enemy. They do that because they are families connected one way or another with blood ties that bind them stronger than the name of the armed group they’re supposed to be fighting for. To understand the rebel structure you have to know the filial connections of clans in a feudal setting.

You have to know that Mindanao is no longer the single entity that it was in the days of the intense secessionist rebellions in the 1970s. The very reason the rebels themselves have failed to unify, splintering into groups over the decades, has had to do with their ethnic differences. Giving the power of autonomy to the MILF, which is largely Maguindanaoan, does not quite make the Tausugs of Sulu happy. And what of the Maranaos, the Iranuns, the Samas and Badjaos, and the other marginalized non-Muslim tribes?

How about if we step back from this? Let’s not look at the past attempts at granting Muslims autonomy as failure if we don’t know where the new proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law will take us. The answer to peace may no longer be in the crux of this law, not after what has happened when a cease-fire was supposed to be in place. It should not have taken long for the rebels to withdraw, but they kept at it, strafing the police as the morning light rose.

Forty-four of your men died, Mr. President. It is not an isolated case. It is not an ordinary fighting incident to be forgotten.

If you think peace can’t be had without this law, let me take you to a town in Sulu where people had made it come true, contained in their own universe before the vetting of others for gains in promotion blotted it out. You might want to know that you have good officers out there pushing for peace in their own creative ways, working quietly without much publicity, caring for the local Muslim population when the civil servants could not be bothered.

There are small successes elsewhere too, in other parts of Muslim Mindanao; have a look and go from there. Take a map and plot out which of your hawks and which of your doves in the army should be put in each province, let them build a development plan in military-civilian partnerships that private groups would be more than willing to help. Make a cutting-edge move in the so-called peace strategy that you touted when you came into office. Change the old worn-out system if you want Mindanao so badly to be on good terms with your republic.

Which brings us to a delicate issue: How deeply were you really involved in this operation? How much of the intelligence given by the Americans – according to sources – led you to pursue this, keeping Mar Roxas, your secretary of interior and local government secretary, who is directly in charge of the national police, in the dark?

The Special Action Force would not have gone there on its own, a full load of about 400 men, without higher orders, cutting others off from the plan. The Army’s 6th Infantry Division, whose headquarters is not too far from the Liguasan Marsh, had to have known that a special unit of that size was there but it probably would not have carried out an operation as sloppy as that.

There sat your loyal men when you went live on television to tell us nothing will stop the peace process that you have started. The same faces when a crisis strikes your government. It may be about time to let go of your circle of friends.

Under your leadership, you have chosen generals who were likewise your friends in the presidential guards when your late mother, President Corazon Aquino, was besieged by coup attempts in the 1980s. Them and an odd, paradoxical mix of other generals who had also wanted to overthrow her. This doesn’t make sense, and many officers have come to believe that you have changed little of the old practices of your predecessors.

As you spoke to the nation, the men both in the police and the military were looking for a true commander-in-chief, indignant and angry as they were by the lame slap of your response to what happened in Maguindanao. You ought to know that a leader is a soldier who loves his men and each life lost is a stab in the heart. If perhaps you heed the call of being one, this alone could be your legacy.

Criselda Yabes is a Filipina journalist who has lived with and reported on the insurrection in the southern Philippines.