Philippines struggles with Muslim rebels
By Richard Heydarian
MANILA - With the administration of Philippines President Benigno Aquino devoting much of its political capital to resolving the conflict in the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, which has claimed around 150,000 lives over decades, many came to believe in the genuine possibility of a new era of stability and economic prosperity in the region.
Since 2011, the Philippine government has engaged in intensive negotiations with the country's largest insurgency group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). Committed to bringing about peace to Muslim Mindanao, Aquino went as far as holding secret talks with the MILF chairman Murad Ebrahim in Japan (on August 4, 2011) to reinvigorate the long-stalled peace negotiations, with Malaysia serving as a key mediator.
Peace negotiations with the MILF culminated in the late-2012
Framework Agreement, which laid down the foundation of a BangsamoroIslamic sub-state in the near future, allowing the Muslim minority to enjoy a measure of political, cultural and economic autonomy in the South. This represented the strongest attempt at a political settlement of the conflict in Mindanao.
But in the absence of a more inclusive peace process involving all key stakeholders, Aquino's pitch for a decisive resolution of the conflict was inherently shaky. Things came to head when hundreds of rebel fighters belonging to the MILF's parent organization, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), launched a coordinated attack on the Christian-majority Zamboanga City in Mindanao in early-September.
What followed was a national crisis, which led to the displacement of up to 82,000 residents, the destruction of almost 1,000 buildings, and the death of 90 individuals within two weeks of intermittent fighting between rebels and government forces.
The Zamboanga crisis has laid bare the inherent vulnerabilities of the Philippine government in providing security to its citizens as well as instituting durable peace in Mindanao.
Shortly before the events, as the government and the MILF reached a crucial agreement on the issue of revenue-generation and wealth sharing, there were growing indications of renewed tensions in the area.
In mid-August, MNLF members, led by the doyen of Moro nationalism, Nur Misuari, decided to protest their exclusion from the ongoing peace process by declaring "independence" from the Philippines. They argued that the government-MILF negotiations unjustly superseded the 1996 peace deal, which marked the (a) cessation of MNLF's two-decade-long guerrilla war against the government and (b) the establishment of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) shortly after.
The ARMM, composed of the impoverished provinces Basilan, Tawi-Tawi, Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao, and Sulu, has fallen way short of MNLF's hopes for a viable Moro-Islamic state in Mindanao, which is composed of 26 provinces.
Misuari himself, the first governor of ARMM, has been increasingly marginalized within his own ranks for his perceived fruitless compromises with the Philippine 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," said Misuari earlier this year, criticizing the Philippine government for failing to fulfill its age-old promise of genuine autonomy to Muslim Mindanao and sidetracking the MNLF in the ongoing negotiations.
Repeatedly ignored by the government, MNLF members raised the stakes by laying siege on Zamboanga and taking up to 180 residents as hostages. Intent on quelling the insurgency, the Philippine government responded with the deployment of around 3,000 government troops, composed of both the Philippine National Police-Special Action Force as well as the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP).
A dangerous standoff between the rebels and government troops ensured, with the entire city forced to shut down immediately. Meanwhile, a "no fly zone" was declared by the government, with authorities imposing a curfew.
As clashes turned increasingly violent with government troops seeking desperately to free hostages and end the standoff, a national crisis was born. At this point, top government officials, namely AFP chief-of-staff Emmanuel Bautista, Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas III, and Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin, were dispatched to Zamboanga City to directly manage the crisis and end the siege as peacefully as possible.
Matters got worse when other radical rebel groups, especially Abu Sayyaf and Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom fighters, joined the fray and spread the crisis to neighboring Basilan, which also saw flare-ups in terror attacks and violent skirmishes. Due to confusion over the leadership of the perpetrators, with Misuari denying direct responsibility in the siege, authorities repeatedly failed at establishing communication channels and negotiating a ceasefire with the rebel groups.
"They refuse to listen to anybody locally," said Zamboanga City mayor Maria Isabelle Climaco-Salazar. "They say that it's an international problem, and no less than the international community, the UN, should come in."
On September 13, President Aquino, sensing the urgency of arresting the deepening humanitarian crisis in the area, arrived at Zamboanga to directly manage the crisis.
"There's a thin line that can't be crossed, putting civilians' lives at risk," Aquino said in a stern warning to the rebel groups. "When that line is crossed, I will be forced to not only show, but use the full force of the state."
But rebels continued to dig in and refuse to surrender, prompting the government to employ all its military instruments, with the Philippine Air Force (PAF) beginning to bomb rebel strongholds and ground troops denying exit routes to the rebels.
So far, government troops have killed up to 200 rebels, while rescuing 170 hostages. Overall, the government seems to have gained the upper hand, and the end to the siege is in sight, but the rebels have managed to expose the fragility of the security situation in the south, with the government struggling to cope with a renewed humanitarian crisis and a major blow to its peace initiatives in the region.