Siege exposes holes in Aquino peace plan
By Richard Javad Heydarian
MANILA - The rebel siege of Zamboanga City on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao has exposed fatal flaws in President Benigno Aquino's once highly touted peace process for the restive region. As clashes between Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) fighters and government forces intensify, the risk of a return to full-blown civil war with the until now dormant rebel group is rising.
On September 9, hundreds of MNLF fighters arrived by boat and launched a coordinated surprise attack on the Christian-majority Zamboanga City, sparking a national security crisis that has so far resulted in at least 87 deaths, the displacement of 82,000 residents, and the destruction of almost 1,000 buildings. After a
week of clashes, rebels remained holed up in two coastal areas with an unknown number of hostages.
On Monday, the government claimed to have recaptured 70% of the areas initially held by the rebels and rescued 116 hostages, although according to an al-Jazeera report the local police chief has been abducted, along with two other police officers, by the MNLF. News reports indicated troops had fired rockets from helicopters to dislodge MNLF fighters from the areas they still occupied, despite indications civilians trapped in the conflict zone could be used as human shields.
Repeated government attempts at brokering a ceasefire have failed due to confusion over who is leading the rebel assault; MNLF founder and former leader Nur Misuari has denied responsibility.
Top officials including Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas III, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin, and Armed Forces of the Philippines Chief-of-Staff General Emmanuel Bautista were dispatched to Zamboanga City to manage the crisis. However, the situation deteriorated further as other radical rebel groups, including the Abu Sayyaf and Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, apparently joined the fray and widened the crisis to neighboring Basilan island, which has been hit by smaller scale attacks and violent skirmishes.
Despite reports of reinforcements replenishing the rebels' ranks, government forces have gradually gained the upper hand. Military spokespeople said operations were now focused on aerial assaults and denying escape routes to bombarded rebels. "We know for a fact that the end is near and they are trying to flee," said military spokesman Lt Col Ramon Zagala. "Some of them may be trying to disguise as civilians, so it's very critical that the village elders help us identify those who are not from their neighborhoods."
While Aquino may win the battle of Zamboanga, prospects for his peace process have been badly damaged. His government has invested significant political capital into comprehensive negotiations with the country's largest insurgency group, the Moro Islamic National Front (MILF). The October 2012 Framework Agreement with the MILF paved the way for a political settlement through the establishment of a "Bangsamoro" sub-state to encompass the Muslim majority provinces of Mindanao, including areas known to be rich in untapped mineral resources and agricultural potential.
Other major rebel groups led by the MNLF have openly lamented their exclusion from the high-level negotiations and their outgrowth plans to determine the future of Muslim Mindanao. The MILF broke away from the MNLF in response a series of diplomatic compromises Misuari made with the Philippine government beginning in the mid-1970s.
Those eventually led to a 1996 ceasefire deal that established the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), composed of the chronically impoverished provinces of Basilan, Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi. Although the AMMM today remains a far cry from Misuari's early vision for an independent Islamic state for ethnic Moros, Misuari has opposed Aquino's peace pact with the MILF on the grounds it threatens to supersede his group's earlier negotiated agreements with the government.
"We have achieved something tremendous in our quest for peace in our homeland ... [But] we had to fight for it and in fact we have lost hundreds of thousands of lives just to be able to reach this point," Misuari said earlier this year while criticizing Aquino for bypassing the MNLF in the negotiations.
As MILF-government talks to implement the Framework Agreement entered last phase issues such as revenue generation and wealth sharing, Misuari and his MNLF supporters declared a separate "independence" for various southern provinces on August 12. The declaration called on MNLF supporters to lay siege to key installations in the region. The MNLF rebels that led the attack on Zamboanga had symbolically tried to hoist their flag at city hall.
Under Aquino's reformist leadership, the Philippines has enjoyed an era of relative political stability and fast economic growth. The country now features among the most dynamic economies in Asia, a significant shift from its long-time status as regional laggard. Aquino has leveraged the turn-around into satisfaction rates as high as 70%, according to recent opinion surveys.
Aquino had earlier hoped to leverage that mainstream popularity into achieving peace in Mindanao. But the death and destruction wrought over the past week in Zamboanga has transformed him from compromising peace negotiator to tough talking commander in chief. On September 13, Aquino traveled to the besieged city to raise public morale and send a clear message to the MNLF that he is firmly in control.
"There's a thin line that can't be crossed, putting civilians' lives at risk," Aquino warned in a televised address from Zamboanga. "When that line is crossed, I will be forced to not only show but use the full force of the state."
In a bid to defuse strained Aquino-MNLF relations, the Philippine Congress has volunteered to negotiate the release of hostages and help to end the crisis. House Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr has said that while he supports the ongoing peace negotiations with the MILF, a more inclusive process should also involve the MNLF.
"Currently peace talks are taking place with the MILF, as the government is still very determined to achieve a just and lasting peace in Mindanao," Belmonte said. "Whatever needs to be discussed with the MNLF, on the other hand, can be brought to a negotiating table and Congress can be the third party venue for the executive and the MNLF to come to terms for our nation."
At the same time, Misuari is effectively internationalizing the MNLF's struggle. In March, Misuari declared the MNLF's support for a small group gunmen loyal to the Sultanate of Sulu who invaded and occupied a small sliver of land on the neighboring island of Sabah. At the time, Misuari linked his support for the small-scale invasion to his opposition to the MILF-government peace deal, which notably was mediated by Malaysia.
Indonesia, another external mediator active in the Philippines, has at Misuari's request postponed its upcoming scheduled mediation meeting between Philippine government representatives and the MNLF on a review of their 1996 peace deal, which ended the rebel group's 25-year guerilla war campaign. Some analysts fear the siege of Zamboanga signals the beginning of a renewed armed struggle that aims to scupper the implementation of the Framework Agreement with the MILF.
Despite the likelihood of government forces soon ending the siege of Zamboanga, the violent episode has exposed holes in Aquino's current approach to conflict resolution in the region. The surprise attack and the government's initial difficulty in putting it down has highlighted the continued relevance of rebel groups outside of the MILF to any credible political settlement in Mindanao. As war with the MILF winds down, renewed conflict with the MNLF could be just beginning.
Richard Javad Heydarian is a Manila-based foreign affairs analyst focusing on the South China Sea and international security issues. He is a lecturer at Ateneo De Manila University's Department of Political Science, and the author of the upcoming book From Arab Spring to Arab Summer: The Economic Roots and the Precarious Future of the Middle East Uprisings. He can be reached email@example.com.
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