Test of will in Mindanao

Sunday’s bloody incident in Maguindanao will probably become one of the most serious stumbling blocks to the attainment of enduring peace in Mindanao, and it definitely won’t be the last. The sources are many.

There are power struggles within the Muslim community that will not miraculously disappear even with the passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law. As we have seen, every peace agreement only highlights the deep factionalism that exists within the Bangsamoro. On the other hand, the national government’s strong resolve to push the passage of the law has not been matched with equal fervor at the local level. Indeed, there is no easy consensus even at the national level. Already, as a reaction to the killing of the 44 members of the Philippine National Police-Special Action Force in the Mamasapano encounter, two senators have withdrawn their sponsorship of the pending Bangsamoro Basic Law.

They question whether the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which is negotiating on behalf of Mindanao’s Muslim community, can control its own armed elements. Or, whether the supposed breakaway Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters that had been harboring the fugitives sought by the police is a deviant splinter group or merely a convenient device to explain away violations of the agreement on cessation of hostilities.

Issues have been raised about the real motives that made the PNP-SAF send almost 400 troopers in a predawn raid into the MILF-controlled town of Mamasapano. The supposed objective was to capture one of the most wanted men in the United States’ list of notorious terrorists—the militant Malaysian bombmaker Zulkifli bin Hir, who goes by the warrior name Marwan, and his Filipino assistant, Basit Usman. The United States has put up a $5-million reward for Marwan and $2 million for Usman. The two are associated with the al-Qaida-linked terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah that has been operating in Southeast Asia.

It is puzzling, to say the least, why 400 police commandos would swoop down on a remote village known to be inhabited by MILF rebels and expect not to be fired upon. This is not a typical Filipino community that is strictly under the control of the Philippine government even if its local officials and police forces are in the payroll of the government. The police could not have possibly thought they were in a position to freely serve arrest warrants on the two wanted men without at least informing the MILF leadership. There is a joint committee to monitor and supervise the cessation of hostilities precisely to avoid risks of misencounters.

But, if this major operation was not even cleared with the top officials of the national government and the police itself, as we are now told, then we have a big problem. Another party was likely directing the clandestine raid.

Some quarters say the reward money might have served as the fatal inducement for this tragic and costly mistake. I refuse to believe this, knowing that government forces are not allowed to partake of reward money for the capture or killing of high-value fugitives. It is true, of course, that one cannot discount the possibility that the SAF commandos might have been deployed on the basis of information supplied by tipsters who expected to collect the reward money and then share this with their police connections. In the face of this tragic and unnecessary loss of lives, I am aware that it is unkind to even entertain these thoughts.

But it gives us an idea of the extremely complex situation we face as we pursue the path of peace in Mindanao. All kinds of motives are at play here, and these are never always in accord with the objectives of even the most painstakingly crafted agreement.

Not the least of these motives are those of the United States itself. The almost permanent presence of its soldiers in Mindanao, as shown by their prominent participation in the retrieval of the bodies of the dead policemen in the aftermath of the firefight, makes one wonder about its long-term agenda in this part of the country. It’s almost ridiculous to hear their presence in conflict areas in Mindanao explained as part of the RP-US joint military exercises. Still, it’s interesting that America’s active role in the forging of peace in Mindanao has been as welcomed by the MILF as it has been by the Philippine government.

What is one to do in the face of these challenges? We can only summon all the calm and the patience we can endure while awaiting more information, and draw some encouragement from the gestures of goodwill that have been shown in the meantime. While unable to stop the Mamasapano encounter, the MILF did not hesitate to facilitate the rescue of the remaining police forces that had been trapped and the retrieval of the dead and wounded. The government, for its part, calls the bloodbath a “misencounter” and is honoring all the fallen policemen, giving them due recognition for their valor and service to country. It remains unwavering in its commitment to complete the peace process with the MILF.

The political fallout from this event for both the Aquino administration and the MILF is incalculable. But even more so are the overall costs for the country as a whole. Any misstep by the principal parties to peace at this point could doom the entire process altogether. Then we are back to zero. Times like this call for sobriety, difficult as that may be in the world of politics.

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