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The MILF as a peace partner

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Public Lives

The MILF as a peace partner

/ 12:11 AM February 12, 2015

In the wake of the unfortunate Jan. 25 encounter between government forces and elements of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, questions are now being asked about the MILF’s trustworthiness as a peace partner. Forty-four police commandos on a mission to arrest two highly wanted international terrorists were killed in that encounter.

The Philippine National Police-Special Action Force says that combined forces of the MILF and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters ambushed a police blocking force as the latter was moving out of the area following the completion of the lead group’s mission. The ensuing gun battle continued for almost a day, despite early calls for a ceasefire. Trapped in an open cornfield, the SAF contingent of 36 commandos fought to survive until all but one were killed. Many of them appear to have been shot at close range, their weapons, uniforms, and personal effects taken away by their attackers.

A mix of gloom, grief and anger swiftly filled the air as the caskets bearing the bodies of the fallen policemen poured out of the cargo plane that brought them to Manila. Not even the news that they had succeeded in taking down Marwan, the main target of their mission, could dispel the nagging feeling that these uniformed men had died under unjust circumstances. This feeling has buried the important question—why the government risked violating the ceasefire agreement by not informing the ceasefire coordinating committee beforehand.

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At once, the call for justice was sounded, and this was heard as a demand for accountability. On whose orders were these police officers sent on this dangerous mission? Were they adequately equipped for the mission? Who was directing the operation? Was the plan faithfully followed? Was there a clear provision to reinforce or rescue the men in the event they needed to be extricated from the area?

The military has come under criticism for failing to promptly respond to an urgent call for help by the police. The military leadership explained that it was difficult to do so given that the operation had not been previously coordinated with them. These are questions that are internal to the government’s security forces and their operational protocols. The President as Commander in Chief, rather than the other political branches of government, is administratively positioned to initiate the investigation and resolution of these issues. Given the security implications of the key issues, it would have been preferable if the President and the heads of the relevant departments were given the chance to complete their reports before Congress launched its own hearings.

But, there are questions of an explicitly political nature that Congress has no choice but to ask in the light of the ongoing discussion of the Bangsamoro Basic Law. Given that the government has recognized the MILF as its “peace partner” in Mindanao, how is Congress supposed to take this latest bloody skirmish between government troops and armed elements of the MILF? Is it enough to call it a “misencounter” that has little to do with the merits of the Bangsamoro Basic Law?

I’m afraid Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano has asked sharp questions that cannot be ignored: Can the MILF be trusted as a peace partner? What were the two wanted terrorists, Marwan and Usman, doing in what was supposedly an MILF area? Has the MILF been coddling terrorists? If the MILF says it was not aware of Marwan’s and Usman’s presence in its area, then how much of what is happening in so-called MILF-held areas does the MILF know? Indeed, one could go further and ask how much control the MILF leadership exercises over its armed elements.

There are other difficult questions: Why did the MILF men continue to fire even after they had been ordered to cease firing? How is it that the BIFF, supposedly a breakaway group, seems free to operate in MILF zones? Should the government continue to deal with the MILF political leadership as though it were the true voice of the Moro people in Mindanao?

Congress hopes to get answers to these questions from Mohagher Iqbal, the head of the MILF panel in the peace negotiations, when he appears before the two chambers. Strictly speaking, Congress cannot compel the MILF to appear before it. As a revolutionary group, the MILF is not subject to our laws. As a dialogue partner in ongoing peace negotiations, however, the MILF may feel obliged to explain its actions to the government peace panel that has been designated to talk to it. Still, I hope its leaders will go the extra mile by accepting the Senate and House invitations, if only to manifest goodwill, build trust, and help save the Bangsamoro bill.

If and when they do, I hope our legislators will give them the courtesy due them as partners in the peace effort, rather than prejudge them as terrorists. After all, by not informing them of the police operation in Mamasapano, it was the government that broke the ceasefire agreement.

I continue to believe that the MILF is a group that has made the difficult leap from sheer rebellion to accountable political leadership in a place that historically has been rent by anarchy and patrimonial warlordism. We can encourage them as partners in a novel experiment in modern autonomous government. Or, we can dismiss them as an incorrigible bunch of treacherous bandits and terrorists.

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We can continue to silence our guns as we try to hold the peace in the face of tough challenges. Or, we can resume the war of pacification and subjugation that previous governments, colonial and Filipino alike, began in Mindanao in the name of law and order. The choice is ours.

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TAGS: Alan Peter Cayetano, Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, Mamasapano, Marwan, mohagher Iqbal, Moro Islamic Liberation Front, Philippine National Police, Special Action Force
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