Honor the dead with lasting peace
Incendiary language has roused and war drums have been sounded following the recent ambush-slaying of 19 Army Special Forces troops in Al-Barka, Basilan in southern Philippines.
As in other civil wars, the battle on the ground ignites a similar battle on the air lanes, with each of the contending side trying to communicate its version of the incident. In this case the peace skeptics seem to be winning. Several politicians and media commentators have taken turns blasting the peace negotiations between the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the government, even taking potshots at President Aquino’s resolve to end the conflict and at his administration’s efforts to forge a political settlement.
Amid the cries and recriminations, few have taken stock of what the war in Mindanao actually means for the soldiers themselves. It is often said that soldiers go into battle with the safety and welfare of their comrade-in-arms foremost in their minds. Few bravely march to a possible death, inspired by the lofty ideals of freedom, democracy or nation-building. Most disdain violence as much as their enemies, and as deeply as any family or community that has been caught in the crossfire.
If there is a lesson to be learned from this sad episode it is that peace is a prize that every soldier covets. By turning our backs on the search for lasting peace, we only repudiate the ultimate sacrifice the soldiers offered. On the other hand, by continuing with the peace process, we honor the memory of those who have lost their lives in this conflict, be they from the MILF or government, or civilian victims.
It is easy to ignore the price paid by the victims of war when one lives in the safe confines of a metropolis. Most Filipinos see Mindanao as an island that will never see peace and development, populated as it is by the “ruthless other” who is, by culture, violent and cannot be trusted. They dismiss the conflict and “mindless” acts of war as a consequence of an intrinsic culture of violence. And they begin to take stock of the violence only when the bombs start exploding in their malls, their schools, or in their places of worship.
Yet tens of thousands have died and half a million people have been permanently displaced by the conflict in Mindanao. Previous administrations which waxed triumphant over their success in recovering MILF territories and camps failed to take into account the physical, emotional and economic costs of their hollow victories—worse, they failed to see that despite the huge costs, they didn’t secure a lasting peace.
So who are the brave and real “strong men” in a violent conflict? Those who speak the language of hate and violence, or those who take upon themselves the burden of negotiating for peace in the face of innumerable odds?
Some people find the continuing peace process delusional. But if we consider what has been achieved thus far, we will see that a general ceasefire continues to endure, that both panels are inching toward an agreement, and the “honest peace brokers” in this process are hopeful like never before of success. Indeed, against the backdrop of the suspended government-NDFP (National Democratic Front of the Philippines) peace talks, the government-MILF peace process is the “low-hanging fruit” in the tree of peace.
Surveys have shown the legitimacy of government’s efforts to broker a lasting political settlement in Mindanao. But the manner the Al-Barka deaths is being made out by some only invites more distrust and bloodletting. A disruption in the peace process will serve no purpose except to harden ethnic divides and strengthen the position of extremists of both sides who desire to scuttle the negotiations and continue the killing—from which they expect to benefit.
Another dangerous outcome from the eruption of more violence is the rise of tougher demands on the negotiating table, which will make it more difficult for the negotiating panels to move toward an enduring political settlement. Beware those who will make the tougher demands; they may be out only to sow disunity or create discontent within the ranks of the combatants from both sides, thus paving the way for defections, splinter groups or coup d’etats.
The best response would be to undertake an investigation of the incident, principally for the purpose of preventing a repeat in the future, not to determine whether the peace process is worth continuing. A strategic move that can emerge from this incident is a joint committee on the cessation of hostilities and the International Contact Group with more teeth and authority, conducting an impartial and transparent investigation of the Al-Barka incident. Beyond this action there are sufficient rules and safeguards within the ongoing peace talks that already enable unhampered communication and cooperation between both parties, including the presence of impartial and honest brokers.
Finally, like other conflicts in the world, an effective peace process requires what the eminent peace scholar Ed Garcia calls a “marathon mentality.” Patience and perseverance are infinitely less costly than pride and prejudice.
Francisco Lara Jr. is a research associate at the London School of Economics: Crisis States Research Network (LSE-CSRN), and has undertaken studies on the political economy of conflict in Mindanao.
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