Forgiveness and forgetfulness in the Mindanao conflict

Corporate Watch
Amelia H.C. Ylagan

Posted on February 09, 2015

HER HUSBAND was shot at 8 a.m. that morning, his Ex-O sadly announced, apologetic beyond forgiveness. Why, O Mother of Perpetual Help? I prayed so hard to you that he would be safe! He is wounded, and in hospital -- the lieutenant might have added “only,” to try to assuage her most fearful thoughts. Where is his commanding general, she boomed? He is out, playing golf, Ma’am.

The commanding general was playing golf while the young officer was dying in a makeshift clinic in Jolo. Forget that, and forgive -- that was 40 years ago. She has even forgiven the Muslim rebel who had infiltrated the bivouacked infantry battalion resting after the successful operation -- and had shot at him from behind a marang tree near his tent. All who might have had directly or remotely, innocently or maliciously hacked the extreme pain that hewed a widow and an orphan are forgiven.

The killers and circumstantial accomplices are forgiven but the pain cannot be forgotten. And memories were so painfully brought back by the killing two weeks ago of 44 members of the elite Special Action Force (SAF) of the Philippine National Police (PNP) by Muslim rebel forces in Mamasapano town in Maguindanao province. Forty-four bereaved families and a nation ask why this had to happen, and how many more men in uniform will yet have to die in a senseless, continuing war between brothers in the seemingly implausible peace?

“Killed in action” (KIA) seems incongruous a classification for a dead soldier in a post-war democracy. Initial tally of KIA was said to be at 13,000 in the first four to five years of the 14-year dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos that started in 1972 -- concurrent with the hottest wars with the Mindanao rebels. In a University of the Philippines study of the Mindanao conflict, it was said that “from 1972-1982(?) the 30,000 strong MNLF -- said to be funded by Malaysia and Libya -- tied down 70-80% of the Philippine military, inflicting an average of 100 casualties per month.”

Perhaps the biggest treachery in the history of Muslim Filipino rebels against brother Filipino soldiers was the massacre of Brigadier General Teodulfo Bautista with 34 of his men (including five colonels) in Patikul on Jolo Island, in October 1977. Bautista went trustingly for peace talks with Osman Salleh, a rebel leader of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), who promised that 150 of his men would switch to the government side. But that was in the horribilis of the ’70s, at the height of martial law in the country, in the loudest clamor for secession of Muslim regions in Mindanao.

Forty years ago, in 1975, the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) recognized the MNLF, led by Professor Nur Misuari, as the representative of Philippine Muslims. Malaysia allowed the group to set up training sites in Sabah on Borneo’s northern tip, the Reuters Foundation said in a timeline report of the Mindanao conflict.

It was perhaps this mode of conflict established ab initio that carried through the years of government efforts toward peace in Mindanao -- the government had always wanted peace, but did the procession of Muslim leaders through the years, on the other hand, want a negotiated peace, or a peace on their terms? When then President Marcos signed the Tripoli Agreement in 1976, the Muslim Mindanao leaders were in conflict even among themselves.

Even while Misuari was fighting with the government, Salamat Hashim, a senior MNLF officer, broke away, taking most of the Maguindanao-based MNLF with him, and setting up the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). Meantime, Marcos was overthrown by the EDSA I people power revolution, and Corazon Aquino became the democratic President that set up the ARMM (Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao). And Misuari eventually ran and won in national local elections for the ARMM but thereafter disappointed his followers and believers with his alleged corruption.

But before that, in the early 1990s emerged the Abu Sayyaf, another breakaway group separate from the MILF and the MNLF, and led by Abdurajak Abubakar Janjalani. It declared its aim of an independent religious Islamic state in the South as achievable only through force.

There was no relenting in the aggression of the Abu Sayyaf even when the Army killed senior member Abu Sulaiman and finally the chief, Janjalani, who had a $5-million bounty on his head. While President Fidel Ramos was talking peace with the MILF in 2003, the Abu Sayyaf was on a rampage of terrorism and banditry in Mindanao and even Luzon. How many government forces did the Abu Sayyaf kill? How many died by the MILF or the MNLF?

Joseph “Erap” Estrada, who became President after Ramos, went on an “all-out war” against the MILF and the MILF declared jihad against the government. Estrada was ousted by EDSA II in 2001, and in 2003, in Gloria Arroyo’s term, MILF leader Salamat Hashim died and was succeeded by Al-Hajj Murad Ebrahim. Peace was agreed with the government, as it had been agreed and broken in many previous negotiations.

But still the military and police had to deal with the continued Abu Sayyaf banditry and terrorism. And then there is also the pro-war Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), another splinter group from the MILF led by Kumander Kato. The BIFF has unequivocally declared that peace efforts which only aim to grant self-governance to Muslims in Mindanao under the international right to self-determination (RSD) doctrine are not acceptable, and the BIFF will continue to fight for full Moro independence even after the government and MILF panels have bilaterally established the Bangsamoro political entity under Philippine sovereignty.

And so the BIFF has been seen as the slaughterers of the 44 in the SAF team that was sent (still few on the government side can say by whom) to serve the warrant of arrest on Malaysian Zulkifli bin Hir, alias Marwan, alleged mastermind of the 2002 Bali bombings and who had a $5-million bounty on his head, as well as BIFF rebel Basit Usman. Marwan was killed by the SAF but Usman got away. Marwan and Usman have been coddled by the MILF all this time, military intelligence bared post facto.

Alas for the 44 killed by the BIFF -- did they even die for the country, as in their noble hearts, they thought they did? In the cowardly way of mixed motivations of interlocking actors in the war probably not for peace, but for individual glory, we now call those killed in action in Mindanao heroes of the country. How many soldiers, since 40 years ago, when the Islamic group OIC first told the Philippine government to talk to Misuari, have been killed in action to balance the tenuous peace for the hapless civilians also victimized and terrorized by Muslim separatist factions?

Many more uniformed men will die senseless deaths if the government does not make a hard stance on terrorism and rebel banditry in the South. The MILF, who has taken the lead in the peace accord with the government and the implementing Bangsamoro Basic Law, must hold itself accountable for the aggressions committed by the rebel factions, surrender the culprits and be the strict enforcer for good and peaceful behavior by all on the Muslim Filipinos in the proposed Bangsamoro. Before this, the Basic Law cannot be signed, if it ever will be.

As for the government, the commanding general must not be playing golf while a soldier is dying. That is unforgivable, and unforgettable.

Amelia H.C. Ylagan is a Doctor of Business Administration from the University of the Philippines.