SPEAKING FREELY Mindanao examines rebel siege scars
By Sergio de la Tura
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click hereif you are interested in contributing.
MINDANAO - Fighting until the last stand might pave the road to heroic self-sacrifice, but without a guaranteed victory the martyr's cause can easily slide to oblivion. The sheer ability, energetic willingness and ruthless ferocity to fight for one's honor - and, of course, other, more pragmatic motives - fueled the most severe fighting in the Southern Philippines in nearly four years in the
Moro National Liberation Front's (MNLF) rebel siege of Zamboanga City.
Combatants last month engaged in heavy firefights with the Armed Forces of the Philippines. The rebels tried to gain a tactical advantage by taking hostages, using them allegedly as "human shields". Zamboanga City suddenly became a center of urban warfare, where military and rebel snipers operated around school buildings, hospitals and port areas. Classes were suspended, banks and shops closed, and over 100,000 urban residents fled the paroxysm of violence.
The MNLF's tactics weren't the traditional means guerilla fighters use to win the hearts and minds of a civilian population. How can you move as a "fish" (the guerilla) in the "water" (the community) by damaging and threatening the source of your support? Many of the affected civilians were fellow Muslims and native Bangsamoro, whose religious and ethnic interests the MNLF claims to represent. The Manila-based media was quickly inclined to categorize the siege as a "terrorist" attack or vicious act of unprovoked aggression.
While the army's response has been surely more moderate than radical, violations of the laws of war have been documented on both sides. What remains now after all of the MNLF combatants were either killed, arrested or surrendered themselves to authorities is a badly scarred city, with over 100,000 displaced people, countless traumatized civilians and a divide between Muslim and Christian communities accentuated as never before in the recent past.
Notwithstanding the surprising and violent acts of the MNLF, the historically first armed resistance group of Filipino Muslims followed by the currently more prominent Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and its hot-headed splinter group Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, many questions remain: What were the reasons behind this seemingly mindless, almost-suicidal, quest to take over an entire city of over one million residents?
In Filipino political and media culture, explanations of "shock events" range from the absurd to darkest possible motives. The siege has sparked a frenzy of debate and reaction about the wider, nation-wide repercussions of the siege, including in the context of the Byzantine intrigues of Malacanang and the perceived as failing anti-corruption agenda of president Benigno Aquino and his wider "reformist" administration.
Yet the relevant question is seldom asked: "Quo vadis Mindanao?" To be sure, the attack on Zamboanga City did not arise from nowhere. Rather, it was the logical consequence of a chain of events beginning in 1996, when the MNLF concluded a peace agreement with the government. However, even at that time the ground realities were not conducive for a lasting peace agreement.
At the time, the more Islam-oriented splinter group MILF was the dominant insurgent group in Central Mindanao, spanning the embattled provinces of Lanao, Maguindanao and Cotabato, not the MNLF. Clashes between the AFP and MILF occurred on a regular basis and local clan feuds of MILF commanders exacerbated the debilitating conflict.
After 1996, the MNLF was a shadow of its former self. Some members laid down arms and joined the regular army in a so-called "integration" effort; others - especially the commanders - were co-opted with governmental positions and posts as mayors, vice-mayors or village chieftains of the newly created Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). Most of them maintained their power base of armed supporters and transformed them into private armies to protect and ply their personal interests. As a freedom-fighting movement of the Bangsamoro people, the MNLF was history.
In subsequent years three major factions emerged: The original MNLF headed by the "father of the Bangsamoro struggle" Professor Nur Misuari - the one held responsible for the events in Zamboanga; the so-called "Council-of-15" headed by the current vice-mayor of Cotabato City Muslimin Sema; and the Islamic Command Council, a small, less influential faction. The Misuari and Sema wings have until now been deeply involved in local politics in Mindanao (Misuari in Sulu and Basilan; Sema in Central Mindanao) and did not represent a violent challenge to the Philippine state like the MILF.
Years passed and the all-out wars between the government and MILF (2000, 2003 and 2008) ruined tens of thousands of grass roots lives, while former MNLF cadres grew richer, more powerful and as a general rule averse to major confrontation. However, this development was not harmoniously simultaneous in all parts of Mindanao. The Maguindanao and Lanao based factions dominated by Moro tribes such as the Iranun and Maguindanaons remained peaceful while the MNLF remnants in the island provinces of Sulu and Basilan were highly armed and involved in politics, feuds and occasional small battles with the army for a multitude of reasons.
The notorious Abu Sayyaf, another MNLF splinter group, dominated headlines in the early 2000s for involvement in several large-scale terror attacks, kidnappings and beheadings. So were many smaller groups operating in the jungles of Sulu and Basilan. Some individual MILF commanders on the mainland managed to split from their mother organization in moves that created so-called "lost commands" that generated personal income from often illicit activities.
The commander leading the recent siege operation in Zamboanga was Ustaz Malik, a well-known follower of Misuari from Sulu. He is currently on the run from military and police pursuit. Most of his men are Tausug, a Moro tribe known for their proud and rich history in the Sulu Sultanate and their particular ethics of combat and kinship ties - which not only explains the entrenched violence in Sulu, but also the fluidity of armed groups.
Accordingly, an AFP officer once remarked that in Basilan or Sulu someone might wake up as MILF, eat lunch as MNLF, fight as Abu Sayyaf in the late evening and go to bed as the mayor's escort. The allegiance to an ethno-linguistic group does matter in Mindanao, yet ironically enough it is not a recipe to exclude intra-group violence as clan feuds and political combat have shown.
Currently, rumors are circulating in Mindanao that MNLF members allied to Misuari will launch a new fight for an independent "Bangsamoro Republic" in various areas of the southern island. They don't have a realistic chance to win, but any insurgent action wouldn't really be about that - as the Zamboanga siege demonstrated.
Rather, it would be expressed grievance over the government's perceived favoritism towards the MILF as a negotiating partner set to receive the lion's share of development funds earmarked for the region. It would also be an expression of frustration both with the government and its breakaway MILF rival as well as the precarious situation in Basilan and Sulu, where structural violence and political warlordism have filled the vacuum left by lacking governance.
The Framework Agreement of the Bangsamoro (FAB) agreed to last year by the Aquino government and MILF was widely lauded as a "historical" pact towards bringing peace to the conflict-ridden region. The deal effectively branded the previously agreed ARMM as a "failed experiment". Indeed, Misuari's time as ARMM governor is now mostly remembered for corruption and incompetence.
The last grasp of the oppressed and disenfranchised is often for the sword. But should the grievances of an angry minority extinguish the peace hopes of a larger majority, or worse lead them into a new war? The great hope of the Bangsamoro people in the current peace talks lie in the MILF as representative of its aspirations. Objectively, this is not exactly the truth. Apart from the MNLF and the Abu Sayyaf bandits-cum-terrorists in the Sulu archipelago, there other armed actors actively trying to spoil the ongoing talks.
One such group is the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Movement (BIFM) and its armed wing BIFF. Headed by Ustaz Ameril Umbra Kato, a former MILF commander, it is determined to fight against the military until the AFP moves out of Mindanao altogether and gives full independence to the Bangsamoro people. While conspiracy theorists look at the BIFF as a proxy of the MILF, others identify it as a group of die-hard Islamists who are fighting for the sake of fighting without a significant political agenda.
There are plenty of other armed groups devoid of a coherent political agenda that burn to hit the government for various reasons. A member of the Local Monitoring Team, a component of the International Monitoring Team charged with overseeing the MILF ceasefire: "Actually, it's not too bad if they all fight the government. BIFF, private armed groups, New People's Army, Abu Sayyaf. The government is not everything here - why do they deserve credit for not doing much? At some point, peace will come. But ... until then?"
BIFF has recently launched several offensives in Central Mindanao with tactics comparable to the MNLF's assault on Zamboanga, including attacks on civilians, hostage-taking, and no consideration for civilian property or public schools. Their violence is targeted, instrumental and pragmatic. For what, though? To be recognized, as some army officials say, or simply to show force?
No one really knows, apparently not even those carrying the guns. A long-term strategy for small splinter armed groups is rare. A collusive "joint venture" strategy of an alliance between MNLF and BIFF is ultimately dependent on the individual willingness of their leaders to work together and share the spoils and burdens of war.
Inclusion is the word of the day in Mindanao. For better or worse, it is presently a hoax - mere wishful thinking among smaller armed groups. The MILF is in the driver's seat of the Moro people's aspirations and Aquino's government still hopes its initiative will bring peace. His administration clearly committed a major tactical blunder by ignoring Misuari, viewing him more as a political clown than credible political actor. Government officials have similarly portrayed Abu Misry Mama, the BIFF's spokesperson, as an old hysteric.
It is a gargantuan task to create an all-inclusive peace agreement that encompasses rebel leaders and other spoilers known to moonlight as bandits or criminals. But the root causes for the prosperity of these shadow structures and insurgencies en miniature are the same as those that empower the MILF: They are also Bangsamoro. Their insurgencies - criminal, local and beyond - manifest themselves in many ways in different parts of Mindanao. Those committed to resolving the conflict need to grasp and accommodate these complexities or run the risk of more spoilers laying siege to what has become a battered and bruised peace process.
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say.Please click hereif you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.
Sergio de la Tura is a freelance journalist and development agency worker based in Mindanao.