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Disrupting violence in Mindanao

The violent fate that befell 44 police commandos on Jan. 24 has called into question the effectiveness and resilience of the peace agreement that the government (GPH) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) signed in 2014.

The Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB) was supposed to herald a peace that not only looked good on paper but also could be felt through enhanced cooperation and trust between the former protagonists in Mindanao.

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Yet, for many people, that belief and optimism were shattered in the early morning of Sunday and now threaten to set back the painstaking effort to create a Bangsamoro homeland.

‘Misencounter’

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The government and the MILF are now speaking in unison about the causes of the violence. Rules were not followed and as a result a “misencounter” occurred and people got killed. Why an action that undermines the terms of the ceasefire agreement was sanctioned in the first place has not been answered—instead the problem is seen as a technical one and an investigation has been called to avoid a repeat in the future.

The problem with this explanation is that it conceals the nature of violent episodes in Mindanao. For a while now the country has profited from a lull in rebellion-related violence despite the contentious processes and long delays in securing a Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL).

The uncertainty and insecurity that this brings about can easily create the space for violence entrepreneurs to step in. Building peace must be continuous and sustained to prevent violence from shifting from rebellion to terrorism to clan feuding and crime.

Conflict strings

The Mindanao conflict scholar Nikki Philline de la Rosa has written extensively about Mindanao’s conflict strings and how these can be cut only by the building of institutions that deliver a more permanent security infrastructure that people can trust. Her studies show how the causes of violence can shift and produce strings of violence and how victims can morph into perpetrators in an instant unless these violent strings are disrupted.

In “Disrupting Conflict Strings in Subnational Contexts: Experience from Muslim Mindanao” (2014), De la Rosa argues that violent incidents cannot be analyzed as discrete events isolated from other causes and interrelated incidences in the examination of why conflict endures in post-conflict contexts, such as the signing of a peace agreement. It has to examine violent conflict in terms of the propensity of causes of conflict to lead into violent strings.

De la Rosa emphasizes identity issues and their tendency to produce revenge killings—the sort of violence that comes in pairs, threes, fours, etc.

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Kinship ties

In the Mamasapano incident, for example, clan relations between the combatants of the MILF and BIFF must be examined to determine how these produced a free-for-all (pintakasi) that led to the deaths of so many. Were the kinship ties and the interlocking relationships that often trumped rebel group identities taken into account in the planning of the operation?

De la Rosa’s thesis underscores the potentially deadly outcome that awaits law enforcement in volatile environments with a history of clan feuding, rebellion and insurgency. Deterring crime is not easily distinguished by the imagery of policemen in uniform serving warrants of arrest against terrorist suspects or criminal gangs.

Until the Hobbesian state makes its presence felt in Mindanao, heavily armed communities will view the entry of law enforcers as no different from the military invasion of their communities during the long years of conflict.

Nightmares of the past

The sad thing about this tragedy is that everyone was well aware of the growing frustrations since the CAB was signed. People knew that the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) and other threat groups were spoiling for a fight that could disrupt what their former comrades had achieved with their political settlement.

Yet, the expected blowback from dissent and frustration with the peace agreement has mainly taken the form of improvised explosive devices going off, indiscriminate attacks on public places and the hit-and-run attacks of various threat groups that had been on the rise before the incident.

This ill-timed operation and its deadly consequences are now playing into the hands of other threat groups and the political opposition. The BIFF has been invigorated by this incident. The problem is that the deaths from flash points in 2012-2013 are now dwarfed by the current one, dispelling the notion that this new threat group could not rival the MILF.

It boosts the claims made by the anti-MILF opposition that any agreement with the MILF should include other groups, such as the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the BIFF—a position that everyone acknowledges can endanger the peace agreement.

Meanwhile, political elites who oppose the rise of an MILF-led devolved authority are casting new doubts on the sincerity and resolve of the MILF to decommission their weapons and retire their combatants.

The schedule for the passage of the BBL and the subsequent referendum may face further delays. Worse, we are now witness to a wave of slurs against Muslims in general and those supportive of the BBL unleashed by an emotional social media.

Unless this discourse is reversed, a further slide into violence is inevitable and new clashes may again lead to what Interior Secretary Mar Roxas has described as “the single largest loss of life (of security forces) in recent memory.”

Memories of Al-Barka

The current tragedy also resurrects eerie memories of the 2011 Al-Barka incident that killed more than a dozen Scout Rangers, who were similarly poised to deliver warrants of arrest to criminal suspects in a known lair of the MILF. But the scale of the Al-Barka operation was much lower in terms of troop numbers and firepower. (See related story.)

This claim cannot be made in the current case. Yet, the same rationale and explanation that demonstrably failed in 2011 are being revived and ultimately face the same skepticism from a cynical public.

BBL fate hangs in balance

Does the violence signal the need to review the CAB and the subsequent processes that should have led to a basic law? Are we really supposed to end all negotiations and hearings on the basic law until we’ve come to the bottom of this issue?

These proposals are being made by legislators who feel the need to be more accountable now for the votes they make and the actions they take in support of a bill that is being linked to the recent tragedy. Whether fair or not, there is ample reason to take stock, review the bill and improve its components.

However, what worries government, development agencies and peace-building advocates is when the process of review is used to derail the vital components of the CAB, or to sow wider distrust toward both the GPH and MILF panels. It is ironic that the many failed attempts of disparate groups to demean the MILF and the BBL are now riding a crest of popularity not of their own making.

Those who desire to profit from this tragedy by further delaying the passage of the BBL and by denying the MILF a leadership role in the transition should take a leaf from the past. The failure of the 1996 final peace agreement between the government and the MILF produced waves of violence in 2000, 2002-2003 and 2013.

Private armed groups

The ebb and flow of the GPH-MILF negotiations was accompanied by flash points in 2003, 2005 and 2008, and provided the setting for the rise of private armed groups and criminal gangs.

Traditional modes of political control and legitimate rule are also affected by the thinning of support for the Moro political and clan elites who could no longer provide the welfare and protection that communities demanded in situations of extreme conflict.

Except for the island provinces, the firepower of mainland clans has been inadequate in confronting rebel groups. This is to be expected and is a usual feature of post-conflict transitions where a predominant armed group disables traditional modes of governance that cannot easily be restored after conflict has ebbed.

The same outcomes resonate in other developmental and conflict transitions in other parts of the developing world—from Myanmar and Nepal to Egypt and Lebanon.

Graying leadership

The graying leadership of the MILF is another matter of concern for future development and peace-building initiatives. MILF chair Murad Ebrahim and MILF chief peace negotiator Mohagher Iqbal are rightly worried about having to pass on the leadership of the MILF to younger cadres and combatants who may be swayed by competing ideologies with no aversion to indiscriminate and extremist violence.

Intelligence reports have emerged that point to new threats arising from the spread of more radical threats from within the country and other parts of Southeast Asia, including reports of young men and women returning from combatant roles in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Libya. Securing an agreement now provides the best guarantee that a slide into extremism can be averted.

The present leadership of the MILF has demonstrated the patience and resolve to secure a just and principled agreement unmatched by previous peace processes. This needs to be acknowledged.

Moving forward

The BBL may be close to suffering the fate of a stillborn child but only if we permit this to happen. The concerns of the people of Muslim Mindanao for a genuine transition to a more accountable and inclusive authority depends upon the passage of the law and the successful conclusion of a plebiscite that will determine the actual scope of the devolved authority.

Peace dividends

Peace dividends are threatened by the new round of violence and its potential aftereffects. Investment decisions made by the energy, agribusiness, fisheries and mining sectors may be placed on hold if another race to arms comes to fruition as a result of recent incidents.

The huge budget committed to the new Bangsamoro and its potential knock-on effects on health and education in a region facing high poverty and inequality can be delayed again by the uncertainty and insecurity posed by new flash points.

More importantly, the erosion of trust in the viability of a truly peaceful Bangsamoro will not only deter the much needed development and democracy in the region but also weaken the legitimacy of a nascent leadership of young Muslim professionals who are working tirelessly in preparation for a future government that they can truly call their own.

In the original plan, the entire process of establishing the Bangsamoro should be concluded by now—with sufficient time available for the MILF to function as a transition authority. This bargain was secured to enable the MILF to genuinely govern even for a limited period of time before the elections of 2016. This is getting to be more difficult with the pressures being faced by legislators and the peace panels as a result of recent events.

By the time the MILF becomes a transition authority, the election campaign period will be upon us and an election spending ban will be in place that will effectively hamper the ability of the MILF to rule.

Unclench fists

This explains why all stakeholders must prevent the legislative process from suffering further delays. The Mamasapano tragedy should be seen as an occasion to unclench, rather than to clench, fists. Each side in the conflict divide should be willing to bend backward to accomplish an agreement on the basic law as soon as possible.

Let’s honor the dead with more cooperation, instead of more contestation.

Fallen brother’s plea

In 2011, a junior lieutenant and a Philippine Military Academy graduate named Erran Khe spoke lovingly and wisely about his elder brother Lt. Delfin Khe and how their family felt about the latter’s death in his failed mission in Basilan.

Erran wanted justice but did not seek revenge. Instead, he and his family wanted to honor Delfin with a plea for genuine and lasting peace to reign in Mindanao. Delfin’s sacrifice and his brother’s passionate call for justice and peace should not be lost on those who bear responsibility for securing a durable peace in Mindanao.

The author is country manager of International Alert UK, senior lecturer at the University of the Philippines Diliman and research associate of LSE Crisis States Research Network.

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TAGS: Al-Barka, Bangsamoro Basic Law, Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro, Delfin Khe, Erran Khe, Mamasapano, Mar Roxas, Mindanao, mohagher Iqbal, Moro Islamic Liberation Front, Moro National Liberation Front, Murad Ebrahim, Nikki Philline de la Rosa
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