The myth of control

One of the questions our politicians kept asking the representatives of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front at the legislative hearings on the Mamasapano incident was: Why were you harboring international terrorists in the communities under your control?

That question, to be fair, should have been asked of the heads of the different local government units—from the barangay chief of Tukanalipao, to the town mayor of Mamasapano, to the provincial governor of Maguindanao, and to the governor of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao. It should have been addressed likewise to the local branch of the Philippine National Police in Mamasapano. How much control do these Philippine officials have over the areas under their jurisdiction? Should they not be held answerable when highly wanted fugitives like Marwan and Usman embed themselves and move freely in their communities?

I am sure their answer would have been no different from that of the MILF: They didn’t know. I think that we are in no position to demand of the MILF what we do not expect our own officials to know.

Let’s face it. In our heart of hearts, we know that, despite the existence of the formal institutions of national government, political control over many parts of Muslim Mindanao is at best tenuous and unstable. The Philippine state cannot claim monopoly of force in these parts. We know only too well how every adult in Muslim Mindanao aspires to own a gun as a means of personal protection in frontier-like conditions. No one bothers to have these weapons licensed by the Philippine government.

Our local officials and police in these areas know this, but choose to look the other way. All kinds of armed groups operate in this region. They put up checkpoints demarcating the territories they consider theirs, and collect fees in exchange for passage. So long as they do not kill or abduct people for ransom, or destroy government facilities and private property, our authorities do little to suppress them—in prudent observance of peaceful coexistence. But, out of ignorance or for reasons of our own, we in Manila continue to promote the fiction that Muslim Mindanao is an integral part of the Filipino nation-state. On paper, it is so. But, in practice, Filipino sovereignty over Muslim Mindanao is at best a work in progress.

This state of affairs is not unique to the Philippines. It is found in many other societies where the central government is unable to enforce its rule evenly over the territory it claims. Just the other day, Asean member-state Burma (Myanmar) lost 47 of its soldiers in 13 separate clashes with ethnic guerrillas in the self-administered Kokang region close to the Chinese border. The Kokang guerrillas used to be the backbone of the pro-China Burmese Communist Party until they broke away from the party.   The military government seized upon the split to forge a ceasefire agreement with the Kokang fighters in 1989. For all their vaunted viciousness, the Burmese generals knew their priorities; they sought to govern a country in relative peace rather than be trapped in perpetual war with its ethnic communities.

This report from the Inquirer (02/14/2015, Page A17) should give us pause amid the growing skepticism over the Bangsamoro Basic Law: “Since coming to power in 2011, the government of Burmese President Thein Sein has been trying to strike peace agreements with about a dozen ethnic rebel groups that have been fighting for decades for greater autonomy. It has preliminary ceasefire pacts with most, but clashes occasionally occur with Kachin, Shan and other ethnic armed groups. The ethnic parties say many questions need to be settled before further pacts are signed, which the government had hoped to do in March.”

I think that compared to their Burmese counterparts, our politicians tend to have an exaggerated view of the national government’s control over the islands that comprise the Philippine archipelago. Perhaps they should take another look at the map of the area surrounding Mamasapano, which shows the location of the various armed elements operating in that largely undeveloped part of the Maguindanao countryside. The picture one gets from that map is that of a fragile peace maintained by hostile elements that do not trust one another, yet are pragmatic enough to be deterred from attacking by the fear of mutually assured destruction.

Any responsible government that aspires to some legitimacy would do everything to exhaust all possibilities of strengthening that fragile peace through mutual agreement before it threatens war against its enemies. But, how thoughtlessly we talk about war! We who were lucky to be born in the postwar era have only an abstract idea of what war means. Unless we have lived in Mindanao, we really do not have any appreciation of the value of peace, or of what it means to be able to raise a family and pursue a life without being hounded by continual fear.

This explains our arrogance. We think of the Bangsamoro Basic Law as a favor to the MILF, and so we expect its leaders to convince us that the organization deserves it. The defense of the BBL before Congress is not the task of the MILF. That task belongs to the executive branch of our government. The MILF leaders have their own explaining to do to their own people. Instead of doubting their control over their constituents, I think we should feel fortunate to be dealing with rebels like them who combine a solid grasp of their people’s grievances with a compassionate understanding of the other side’s fears.

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