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All Out Whatever; Bring Us Peace in Mindanao

For a change, I was actually nodding my head in agreement at a statement that the President was making on the television the other day regarding calls for an all-out war against the MILF. He was correct. Indeed, seldom do decisions made out of anger turn out to be the right ones. Decisions, he said, have to be levelheaded and based on facts. Agree wholeheartedly.

He was also correct in pointing out that an all-out war would affect so many more innocent people who had, in the first place, absolutely nothing to do with the death of the soldiers recently in Al-Barka. Agree wholeheartedly again.

Then, he started talking about waging all-out justice instead of all-out war. This was when, officially, the bull began. One has to admire the sleight of hand, though. The President may yet have more savvy than I frequently give him credit for.

Faced with an overwhelming outcry for war and retribution after live scenes of coffins that were being offloaded from a C-130 were beamed nationwide – not to mention a restive military – but still eager to pursue peace talks with the MILF, the President turned to an ever-loyal friend: rhetoric.

All-out justice, indeed! And what, pray tell, might that be? In the same breath, what – pray tell again – is all-out war?

As you read this, Air Force Broncos are probably dropping bombs on known MILF sanctuaries in Zamboanga-Sibugay and Basilan; in pursuit, Armed Forces Chief of Staff General Eduardo Oban was quick to point out, of rogue elements in the area. “I am here to translate directives of the President into operational goals,” were Oban’s words.

Now, of course, digressing for a moment back to the earlier cries of all-out war, it was never really as though we have a Seventh Fleet with aircraft carriers, cruisers and destroyers along with laser-guided precision weapons to employ for such a war. In other words, the military response that everyone called for in anger is actually ongoing without it being called such. As I see it, that is war; whether it is all-out or not, does it really matter?

To be fair, the bull has been flying from both sides of the fence; and I do not mean the type with horns, hooves and a tail. An MILF spokesperson, interviewed on television the other day, when asked some very pointed questions about whether or not their forces initiated the firefight in Al-Barka and whether they were harbouring lawless elements, in my humble opinion would not have passed a polygraph test. There were ever-so-frequent inflections in his voice that probably betrayed that he was not necessarily telling the truth.

I found it odd and not just a bit contradictory that the same spokesman would even offer sympathies to the families of the slain soldiers. Granted that there is an Area of Temporary Stay agreed upon between the government and the MILF; but even so, soldiers of the Republic should be able to hike anywhere on territory of Philippine sovereignty without being shot at.

Why the same spokesman would keep repeating that the AFP should have coordinated the incursion into Al-Barka with the peace committee was, for all intents and purposes, tantamount to an admission of the MILF’s own culpability in the shootout. My word, but has asking questions become so totally unfashionable? Unless the intention was always to fire, in the first place. And that, exactly, has been what each and everyone of the surviving soldiers have been saying: that they were ambushed.

There is a certain wisdom to the stance that the government has taken vis-a-vis the Al-Barka incident. There has been a military response; whatever political opponents say to the contrary, this will have addressed jibes that the Presidency is weak. Granted that the government is careful to point out that it is not after the MILF and that its forces may not even catch the supposed outlaws...

The exploding ordnance should be sufficient to send the message that the time to call the bluff had come. To my mind, prolonging the conflict in Mindanao by declaring a resumption of hostilities will only be counterproductive. It has gone on long enough a long time ago. The government is wise to want to keep negotiations with the MILF alive. Negotiations, though, are best carried on from a position of strength. I would like to think that, with the military response soon after the Al-Barka incident, the government achieved exactly that.

Asking the MILF to assist government forces in pursuing the outlaws, in case nobody noticed, was even downright cheeky. Nobody believes that the MILF had nothing to do with the Al-Barka shootout, anyway. Now, it is being asked to help accost the so-called outlaws who everyone thinks its forces were shooting side-by-side with in Al-Barka. If the matter was not so dead serious, I would say that somebody in government has a real sense of humour.

When the smoke – not to mention the bull – has settled, all and sundry be reminded that there are two crucial questions that need to be answered. First, is the President’s mind still dead-set against charter change? If so, then what is the point of continuing to negotiate with the MILF because there is no way in hell that there is going to be a Bangsamoro Sub-State unless the constitution is changed. And that is what the MILF is asking for...

Second, does the MILF speak for everyone in the ARMM provinces that will eventually constitute the very same Bangsamoro that the negotiations are being conducted for? If it does not, then the Bangsamoro is fragmented already even before it sees the light of day; and concluding a deal with the MILF will still not bring peace to Mindanao.

If it does, then I am sure none of us would mind if the MILF showed everyone that it is in charge. This includes showing that it can control rogue elements; something that it it will have to do, anyway, if its dream of the Bangsamoro comes to reality.

Personally, I would like peace to finally come to Mindanao. Yes, even if it means making amendments to the constitution. We have all been seeing too many dead bodies for the longest time; and it does not even matter to me if these bodies are government or MILF. As far as I am concerned, they are all dead Filipinos.

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