War looms again amid hopes of peace

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Just as the Aquino administration had expressed optimism for lasting peace in Mindanao following an agreement with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) on the establishment of a Bangsamoro entity, the Nur Misuari-led Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) raised the specter of war in the region.


Misuari criticized the government’s failure to comply with the provisions of the 1996 peace agreement and warned of renewed war if the government abrogates the accord that was reached during the time of President Ramos. MNLF leaders also warned of war in Mindanao if the government were to sign a final agreement with the MILF and continued to ignore the peace pact with the MNLF.

“President Aquino’s action to put an end to the 1996 peace accord is a kind of a divide-and-rule tactics which is tantamount to the declaration of war on the MNLF, and we have no option but to declare independence in Mindanao,” Ustadz Pendi Colano, chairman of the Central Mindanao’s MNLF sub-wing Selatan State Revolutionary Committee, said.

Zamboanga City Rep. Celso Lobregat also issued the same warning, and urged Malacanang to include Misuari’s MNLF in the peace accord to attain complete peace and prevent a “conflagration of the entire Mindanao.”

After Malacanang announced that the government has reached an agreement with the MILF, the MNLF sent out a statement that revealed the creation of the group’s own “Bangsamoro Republik,” a revolutionary government which apparently is its answer to the soon-to-be established Bangsamoro entity to be headed by the MILF.

The statement, which suggested a “United Federate States of Bangsamoro Republik,” said it has established a revolutionary government constitution in Mindanao.

The threat to the fragile peace in Mindanao does not only come from the MNLF, but also from the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), a breakaway MILF group headed by the ailing Ameril Umbra Kato. The Sulu Sultanate, a known ally of Misuari, joined the fray and rejected the inclusion of its ancestral territories to the planned Bangsamoro region in Mindanao. Abraham Idjirani, spokesman of Sulu Sultan Jamalul Kiram III, said the Sulu Archipelago comprising Sulu, Basilan, Tawi-Tawi, Zamboanga and Palawan belongs to the sultanate and the government had no right to turn them over to a political entity controlled by the MILF.

It seems every effort of the government to find a lasting solution to the Mindanao insurgency problem is only met with even more hostilities. After the Marcos administration signed the Tripoli Peace Agreement in 1976, an MNLF faction, led by Hashim Salamat, rose up in arms in 1978 under the name Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

On the eve of the resumption of peace talks between the Philippine government and the MILF in August last year, a breakaway group of rebels made it known that even if the two panels reached an agreement, there wouldn’t be peace in Mindanao short of the establishment of an independent Bangsamoro republic. The BIFF, led by Umbra Kato, occupied several towns in Maguindanao province after a series of attacks that resulted in the death of two soldiers and two BIFF fighters.

Umbra Kato and two other MILF commanders also launched violent attacks in Central Mindanao in August 2008 following the Supreme Court ruling that stopped the signing of a Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD) that the Philippine government and the MILF were about to sign in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The MOA-AD would have granted the Bangsamoro Juridical Entity (BJE) its own internal security force, a system of banking and finance, civil service, education and legislative institutions, full authority to develop and dispose of minerals and natural resources. The BJE would also reportedly be able to send trade missions abroad and enter into international agreements under the MOA-AD.

The attacks killed 44 people, including 23 soldiers, and brought back peace negotiations to Square One.

And now war looms in the horizon again for the beleaguered people of Mindanao as hostilities threaten to break out again, this time not just with the Philippine military, but also between the MNLF and the MILF.

Recent clashes between the government and the BIFF have resulted in several deaths and the evacuation of hundreds of residents. Blasts have also rocked Cagayan de Oro and Cotabato City, which also resulted in several deaths and injuries.

Will there ever be peace in Mindanao? Should the government give up on negotiations with the rebels and just follow the strategy of former President Joseph Estrada and the advice of Senators Panfilo Lacson and Jinggoy Estrada to just annihilate the Moro insurgents? Should the government just let the MNLF and the MILF erase each other from the face of Mindanao? Or should it continue treading the path to peace by painstakingly negotiating with all factions of the Moro insurgency?

“Peace in Mindanao cannot be achieved unless a tactical victory is attained by the Armed Forces of the Philippines,” said Lacson, the Senate’s defense committee chairman, following the BIFF attacks last year. “It is time we untied the hands of our soldiers and authorized them to fight the MILF on equal terms—and not handicapped by the so-called peace talks characterized by treachery and deceit.”

But President Aquino was right in not giving up on peace. One should never give up on peace, even if it takes one rebel group at a time. Eventually, a workable solution that would be acceptable to both sides would be found. Ceasefires during peace negotiations also give a break from violence, however fragile, and a much-deserved rest for the people of Mindanao.

Peace has indeed been elusive in Mindanao, but the country needs peace in that region if it wants to attain the economic prosperity that the people richly deserve.

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