a government helicopter flies over Zamboanga (file photo)

PEACE GROUPS have warned the government that it may just achieve a phyrric victory in Zamboanga even if it is able to crush the remaining Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) holdouts who have already managed to extend the Zamboanga crisis past its 19th day.

In a forum on the causes and effects of the Zamboanga siege at the University of the Philippines Asian Center in Diliman, Grace Rebollos of the group Peace Advocates Zamboanga raised the alarm over incidents that could further drive a wedge between Christian and Muslim communities in the region.

Rebollos said that these incidents could, in the long term, negate any victory that government would achieve by driving out the rebels that had laid siege to the city.

Rebollos decried what she called the “mantra of violence, the paranoia and hysteria” that had captured emotions in a city that is struggling with a resurgence of violence not seen in recent history.

MNLF rebels allegedly loyal to MNLF founder Nur Misuari have been locked in bitter fighting with government security forces in Zamboanga City since they landed in the city last September 9. Misuari had complained of government’s failure in implementing the 1996 peace agreement it signed with the rebel group. Misuari had also complained of being sideline in the government’s peace talks with the rival Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

Rebollos said many of the themes now being repeated throughout Zamboanga are of “divergence rather than convergence,” further deepening divides between the Muslim and Christian communities in the city. For instance, many Zamboanguenos repeat the mantra “No to Cabatangan,” referring to the 2001 crisis in Zamboanga where MNLF rebels also held hostage several hundred civilians. That crisis was resolved after government gave the rebels safe conduct passes to go home.

Apparently, many residents in the city feel that the 2001 crisis was mishandled, with none of the rebels being punished for their misadventure.

“There is a massive cry for the blood of the MNLF,” she said. “Tinitignan sila as invaders. But this is history and culture, and you have to look at it deeper.”

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Grace Rebollos of Mindanao Peace Advocates (photo: Cong Corrales)

Media itself has not helped, Rebollos said. From Day 1 of the crisis, Rebollos noted how some media groups had urged Zamboanguenos to “get out of their houses, arm themselves, and defend Zamboanga” from the MNLF rebels.

“Parang onward Christian soldiers ito, and the subliminal messages come in here,” she said.

More recently, government security forces have been screening civilians suspected of being members of the MNLF by making them recite the Lord’s Prayer. Failure to do so automatically makes the person a suspected MNLF rebel, she said.

“Now these incidents are driving a deep wedge between the communities,” Rebollos said. “And so we are back to square one (in the peace initatives.)”

In a separate interview, Mindanao People’s Caucus secretary general Mary Ann Arnado expressed the same apprehensions, saying that insensitivity may further aggravate emotions already heightened by the extended standoff.

For example, Arnado said that her group noticed how government security forces tended to segregate Christian and Muslim individuals who are found in the combat zone. “Pag Muslim, diretcho sa jail. Pag Christian raw, diretcho sa ospital,” Arnado said. This, even though the rebels had initially held hostage both Christian and Muslim residents of the city.

Arnado warned that her group fears that the crisis in Zamboanga, and the apparent failure of the peace process with the MNLF will result in the radicalizing of the Moro community, even those that had already been engaged by the government in peace initiatives in the past.

Arnado said the case of MNLF commander Habier Malik is a good case in point. Malik, reportedly the ground commander of the MNLF forces fighting government troops in Zamboanga, had been helping the government by fighting Abu Sayyaf bandits in Sulu just six months before. Malik’s group had captured two Abu Sayyaf camps in Sulu in an effort to rescue several foreigners being held hostage by the bandit group.

“He led his forces to fight the Abu Sayyaf group, tapos na push na siya ngayon sa (Zamboanga siege,)” Arnado said. “Sayang na sayang.”

Arnado said the Zamboanga crisis, if handled improperly, easily serves as a beacon for other Moro rebel groups to unite against the government. “It is a magnet for all the armed groups to unite,” she said.

In fact, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, a breakaway group of the MILF, had staged its own attacks in Central Mindanao even as the government struggled with the Zamboanga crisis. Arnado said the only thing that was preventing the Abu Sayyaf group from jumping into the fray right now was its resentment with Malik’s group.

Arnado shared the sentiments also expressed by other scholars and academics in the UP forum in that the Zamboanga crisis was the result of fundamental weaknesses in the peace process between the government and the various Moro rebel groups.

“It is a failure of all our strategies, our tactics in negotiations and dialogues and conflict resolution,” Arnado said. “We all failed – government, MNLF, peace advocates, civil society organizations.”

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Prof. Wadi stresses a point in the UP forum (Photo: Cong Corrales)

Dr. Julkipli Wadi, Dean of the Institute of Islamic Studies of UP, said the MNLF’s frustrations stem from “a unilateral or segmented peace approach” with the MILF that had left the MNLF out of the picture. Wadi also noted the failure of succeeding administrations in working with the gains, and failures of previous administrations in the aspect of peace.

For example, while President Fidel Ramos signed a peace agreement with the MNLF and initiated peace talks with the MILF, President Joseph Estrada waged an all-out war against the MILF.

Then, President Gloria Arroyo resumed talks with the MILF, but invited Malaysia to participate as a facilitator. This was viewed with deep suspicion by the MNLF, especially since Malaysia has a long and tortured history with the MNLF, beginning with its early years, and later resulting in Misuari’s capture and eventual deportation by the Malaysians.

Malaysia continues to play a key role in the MILF talks, hosting the last round of negotiations in Kuala Lumpur. In fact, the Malaysian Prime Minister was also a guest of honor during the signing of the BangsaMoro Framework Agreement with the MILF in Malacanang in October last year.

Wadi said that while the Malaysian government had supported Misuari’s rebellion against the Philippine government in the late 1960s, even to the point of setting up training camps in Sabah, it was seen as a geopolitical play in order to draw Philippine attention away from its claim to Sabah. The matter would come to a head when Malaysia extradited Misuari back to Manila to face rebellion charges in 2001.

“This kind of geopolitics in the peace process should have been taken into account,” Wadi said. “This backdrop should have been taken into account by the peace architects that Misuari has some kind of psychology that is too entrenched and too deep and this is shared by his followers. It is a feeling that they were victims of geopolitics between Malaysia and the Philippines.”

For his part, Undersecretary Chito Gascon from the Presidential Adviser on Political Affairs and the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process said that Misuari’s group would be mistaken in thinking that the government would try to renegotiate with his rebel group. Gascon said the 1996 Final Peace Agreement with the MNLF is still the reference point, and all other peace initiatives with the MNLF are just really reviews of the implementation of the peace deal.

Unfortunately, he said, Misuari has tried to table two new items in their review meetings – the creation of a provisional government which the MNLF would head, and the holding of a plebiscite for the expansion of the current autonomous region. On both counts, Gascon said government’s position is that these have already been implemented.

For example, Gascon said the provisional government that Misuari is still demanding had taken the form of the Southern Philippines Council for Peace and Development, the coordinating body created in 1996 of which Misuari was named chairman. As well, Misuari was given the governorship of the ARMM in 1996.

As for the expansion of the autonomous region, Gascon said such a plebiscite had been held in 2001, in which one province was added to the autonomous region.

“Government is of the position that there is a standing peace agreement with the MNLF, and it is not personal to Misuari alone,” Gascon said. “We hold to account the parties of the agreement, and we work with people of goodwill committed to the peace to sit down and talk about its implementation.”

However, one lesson that the government has taken away from the peace agreement with the MNLF was the need to demobilize armed groups after the signing of a peace agreement.

While the MNLF peace deal provided for the integration of a number of qualified MNLF rebels to the PNP and the AFP, there was no clear provision on how to disarm and demobilize the rest of the MNLF. For this reason, MNLF rebels who were not integrated still hold on to their firearms, and continue to hold fort in their camps.

Wadi also warned government that its three year timetable for the crafting of a new basic law for an autonomous region for Muslims face significant challenges from a centuries old problem.

“Aquino has three years to accomplish this (Bangsamoro creation), but we are talking about a centuries old problem trying to fit into a three year timetable,” Wadi said.

In the end, everyone agreed on the need for the peace process to be more inclusive, not just of those directly participating in the talks, but also of those the parties claim to represent, regardless of which rebel groups they belong to.

“Ultimately it is a matter of defining what is the peace process,” Rebollos said. “How does the peace process become more affordable so that it does not become the exclusive focus of those negotiating?”

“Even the MNLF are ours also, just as the MILF and the people of Zamboanga and all those who feel they have a stake in this problem,” Rebollos added. “You look at the face of the MNLF and the soldiers, ang babata nila, and you have to say, what is this country doing to its young?”

“We cannot afford for the MILF talks to collapse also,” Arnado said in a separate interview. “The aftermath of that would be so scary.”

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