Peace process in peril
The scores of policemen killed in what is described as a “misencounter” between the Philippine National Police-Special Action Force and Moro rebels are not the only victims of the Sunday firefight in Mamasapano, Maguindanao. Another unfortunate victim is the peace process between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which has produced a landmark comprehensive agreement to end decades of strife in Mindanao.
As reported, there are conflicting accounts of what actually happened, including the number of policemen killed (at least 44 per the government; 64 per the MILF). What is clear is that the police commandos were on a mission to serve warrants of arrest on two wanted terrorists, identified as Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters commander Basit Usman and Malaysian bomb expert Zulkifli bin Hir alias Marwan, who is linked to the Indonesia-based Jemaah Islamiyah.
Interior Secretary Mar Roxas and PNP Deputy Director General Leonardo Espina said the SAF mission was a “law enforcement operation” against the two men who are on the US list of most wanted terrorists—Marwan with a $5-million reward on his head, and Usman $2 million.
The SAF commandos were withdrawing when ambushed by members of the BIFF, Espina said of the first clash between the government and Moro forces since the signing of the peace agreement just a year ago. He said a board of inquiry had been convened to look into the matter, including whether there was military support for the operation and whether the SAF had indeed failed to inform the Coordinating Committee on the Cessation of Hostilities, as claimed by MILF chief negotiator Mohagher Iqbal.
According to Iqbal, the commandos descended on Mamasapano at 3 a.m. on Sunday without coordinating the operation with the MILF, as required under the peace agreement. With no prior notice, the operation was easily construed as an attack on the MILF position, leading to the 12-hour firefight.
But Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said the SAF did coordinate with the military in the area at the tactical level. He said that because of the presence of the high-value targets, the commandos went ahead with the operation and encountered the BIFF, eight of whose members were killed in the clash.
An intriguing point is the possibility that the operation was inspired by the reward money.
Whichever version is accurate, what is beyond dispute is the impact of this clash, “the single largest loss of life” in the history of Philippine security forces, on the peace process. Already, questions of trust have been raised: With the porous relationships between members of the BIFF and of the MILF—Iqbal himself acknowledged that most of them are related—will the interest of peace take precedence over family ties? And could the SAF have decided to keep its operation secret from the MILF precisely because the two targets might be tipped off?
Speculation also surrounds the bomb explosion in a bus terminal in Zamboanga City that occurred just two days previously. The two incidents were spaced so closely that both are now suspected as attempts to derail the peace process. With the decommission of MILF arms being the next step in the process, could the warlords and their private armies have been so threatened that they decided to wade into the fray to protect their turf?
The disastrous body count—as well as the rumors of postmortem mutilation of the dead—begs the question: How can restitution be done? As one police officer protested, “We can’t allow this incident to just pass without anyone being held responsible.” Indeed. Yet how proceed? And will the quest for restitution—and making the MILF account for the brutal, outrageous carnage over a procedural lapse—take precedence over the search for lasting peace?
These are difficult questions, but answers must be found soon. It’s a race against time to pass the Bangsamoro Basic Law so it could be ratified in October, and the Bangsamoro region’s new officials elected in May 2016.
While the public anxiously awaits the results of the PNP investigation it can take a measure of comfort in the recent statements of both parties. Said Iqbal: “We are committed to the peace process. For the MILF, the ceasefire still holds.” Malacañang has been as reassuring: There is no change in the government’s stand on the peace initiative. Passing the BBL is important; we will continue to pursue the peace process.
Indeed, this latest “Maguindanao massacre” underscores just how important—and urgent—is the quest for peace.
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