Can Manila Afford/Win Another, More Radical Moro War?

In a statement to wrap up their fact-finding study mission to Mindanao last week, an international team of women peace advocates among other things said:

“The continuing IDP situation in Zamboanga city is untenable and unproductive both for the displaced themselves and the local government. Approximately 7,000 families are still residing in the grandstand since September 2013, and we fear that the lack of resolution to their plight could make the youth, in particular, desperate and angry, and more susceptible to radicalization.”

In addressing the apprehensions of both Muslim and Christian residents of the region that the Masasapano Affair may abort the Bangsamoro peace deal, the team further said:

“All parties seemed especially concerned with the possible resumption of war, should the peace agreement not be implemented. It was acknowledged by young and old that should that occur, the youth in particular would, as in Zamboanga, be susceptible to radicalization.”

One of the groups the women met during their February 13-23 visit via Manila to Cotabato and Zamboanga was the latter city’s Interreligious Solidarity for Peace (ISP), which works closely with the Zamboanga-Basilan Development Alliance, Inc. (ZABIDA) in various peace-building projects and activities. The mission was organized and sponsored by the USA-based Joan Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice as part of its series of Asian conferences on the subject of “Defying Extremism”.

Extremism and its consequent violent expression in the form of terrorism is at the heart of the Masasapano tragedy. The objective of the top-secret raid last January 25 by elite Special Action Force policemen to that remote village was to capture or kill archterrorists Zulkifli “Marwan” Binhir and Basit Usman. Taking a very calculated risk, the President probably – or, increasingly apparently – set loose his SAF posse, who killed Marwan. But in what may later be found to be glitches in their operation, the troops instead of withdrawing under the cover of darkness were overtaken by daylight and by the MILF and BIFF rebels.

This resort to armed force without showing his direct hand in it now seems typical of the President, from the assault on the tourist bus in Luneta involving Chinese tourists, the full-scale battle against MNLF rebels in Zamboanga, the subsequent long and ongoing campaign against the Abu Sayyaf in Basilan and Sulu, and then the raid in Maguindanao.

The shocking wholesale death of 44 SAF commandos ignited intense anti-Muslim and anti-Moro rebels sentiments in the country, and the painstakingly-negotiated Bangsamoro peace agreement between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) is increasingly facing a long delay in its implementation, if at all it survives the calls for war and antagonisms. The hawks shriek that the MILF cannot be trusted or expected to deliver peace by a grant of self-rule powers because of its alleged associations with terrorists, that it provided sanctuary to Marwan and his likes.

But can Manila afford or much less win another Moro war this time around? Many among the pro-war ranks admit that the military option may fail as it has since the start of the conflict more than 40 years ago to decisively quash the Moro rebellion. Militarily speaking it has been a stalemate of sorts, but by forcing the MNLF and MILF to drop secession the government has won the war through diplomatic means by getting the support of the Organization of Islamic Countries and other international bodies in its offer of self-rule and autonomy to the Moros. Now, the expanded and vocal opponents of the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) fear that the MILF will use the law to shield terrorists and to eventually secede.

Yet, summarily killing the peace deal and fighting the MILF will quickly draw more terrorists from abroad and within to the side of the MILF and MNLF rebels, which will likely turn Mindanao if not the whole country into a new theater of the violent extremism that now rocks the Middle East. Both rebel fronts will go back to secession, or be forced to. It will be fueled by religious motives, unlike the MNLF’s initial struggle when it was roundly ascribed as only political and historical in nature. So much in struggles for national liberation has changed since, including the use now of social media.

With the BBL, the MILF will be forced to be government’s ally in its drive to curb terrorism in the country and the world’s in Southeast Asia, the promise land of Marwan’s Jemaah Islamiyah. If however the BBL will lead to secession, it would only enable the inevitable – new nations have been formed in modern times on the basis of cultural identity to finally resolve bloody internal conflicts. The Moro struggle dates back to Spanish colonial times, and current religious awakening is giving it new impetus.

It is this religious element that makes interfaith approaches like the ISP’s a relevant and worthwhile option, which even the overly-armed United States is now tapping to counter extremism and terrorism. Interfaith peace-making is potent not only because of the inherent power of religious beliefs to alter behavior but because it necessarily harnesses the conservative middle class and intellectuals, like the present leadership of the MILF, and it is this layer of society who historically have been behind the success of democratic revolutions.

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