Not us versus them
Moro Islamic Liberation Front chief negotiator Mohagher Iqbal finally appeared at the continuing Senate hearing last Thursday, and by his calm, collected demeanor as he replied to the sometimes hostile questions thrown his way, he gave his organization—and the people it purports to represent in the ongoing peace process with the government—an empathetic human face.
This is no less important than the facts that have to be ascertained in the Senate hearing chaired with like-minded sobriety by Sen. Grace Poe. For days and weeks now in the wake of the Jan. 25 clash in Mamasapano, Maguindanao, that left 44 members of the Philippine National Police-Special Action Force dead, the drumbeat of war has steadily risen against the MILF for what the acting PNP chief himself has called an “overkill” in terms of the rebel group’s response to the “intrusion” into its territory. The accusations of battlefield brutality, not to mention bad faith and terrorist-coddling on one hand while negotiating for territorial and economic autonomy with the government on the other, have severely dented whatever goodwill the MILF has earned in the public mind with its earlier agreement to a ceasefire and peace talks with the government.
Iqbal’s earlier absence at the Senate hearing—a result, the MILF said, of the fact that its own inquiry into the clash is yet to wrap up—aggravated the perceived belligerence and callousness of the organization, and certain senators such as Alan Peter Cayetano were quick to exploit the perception. When Iqbal did appear, Cayetano led the charge in labelling the MILF a “terrorist” organization for its alleged ties to Jemaah Islamiyah and for allegedly giving sanctuary to the slain terrorist Marwan, one of two subjects of the arrest operation that led to the bloody firefight that killed the 44 SAF commandos, 18 of the MILF’s own men, and a number of civilians.
Is it a fair accusation? Certainly the MILF needs to answer thorny questions about the scope and reach of its control over the areas it hopes to govern under the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law. The high anxiety about the possibility of the envisioned autonomous region becoming a haven of terrorists and violent groups is valid, and the MILF is duty-bound—as the government’s partner not only in peace-building but also in the harder task of peacekeeping once the Bangsamoro entity is formally established—to ensure that Mindanao and the rest of the Philippines will indeed be in a better, more progressive place with the passage of the BBL.
On the other hand, it must be said that Cayetano and his kind are not making the process of truth-seeking and dialogue any easier by their shrewd shift to demonizing and demagoguery. Hours after the Mamasapano encounter, way before the facts were in for at least a coherent view of the conflict, Cayetano angrily withdrew his support of the BBL—the classic example of a politician wagging a finger, quick to jump on the bandwagon of fickle public sentiment. The Senate hearing is further proof that when it comes to the complex, age-old Mindanao conflict, Cayetano does not trawl far from his shallow moat of hasty generalizations and sweeping conclusions. He pinned the 2011 Al-Barka incident on the MILF—when it was the work of the Abu Sayyaf. He pronounced the freedom campaign of Nelson Mandela against apartheid-era South Africa as having been devoid of violence, unlike the MILF’s in Mindanao; when it was pointed out that he was wrong—Mandela in fact took up arms at one point in his struggle—he blithely charged on, not even pausing to acknowledge, much less apologize for, his dangerous ignorance.
But Iqbal was the picture of restraint and temperance, countering Cayetano’s harangue with a plainspoken but powerful summation of the indignities and suffering that his fellow Moros have endured and continue to bear as their part of the country remains neglected, exploited, or turned into a wasteland by war and strife.
It is important for the public to listen to what Iqbal and his fellows have to say. They are Filipinos who, at one point, had felt the need to wage war to press their claims for justice and recognition in their own land, but are now willing to submit to the legislative process—with a Congress such as ours—for a law that could allow them a measure of peace at last.
Their eventual peace is ours, too. It’s not us versus them. In the search for peace, Iqbal’s demonstration of earnestness deserves consideration, not hostility.
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