THE Philippines has a former advertising executive for tourism secretary in Ramon Jimenez. In his TV and other media appearances, Jimenez exudes confidence from every pore as he carries on in his American-accented English about his plans to turn this country into a tourist haven, mostly by hyping its virtues and concealing its vices.
That’s standard technique among some advertising practitioners when they’re pushing a cheap product, whether it’s a skin-whitening cream or a snake-oil cure for cancer. But it’s especially useful in promoting the Philippines as a tourist destination.
To attract more tourists to these parts, the government has to gloss over, or even totally deny, the existence of such nightmares as the maddening traffic in the streets of the country’s major cities, its less than well-maintained historical sites, its dishonest taxi drivers, the sky-high crime rate, and, of course, the so-called Mindanao problem, which includes but is not limited to kidnap-for-ransom gangs, armed secessionist movements, and the private armies and warlord rule threatening to put the country in the same company of failed states as Somalia and Haiti.
The Mindanao problem has been in the national limelight lately, and could torpedo Jimenez’ grand plans. But Jimenez is in no danger of being axed — it’s not his fault the product he has to sell is so shoddy — and has even emerged as a government savior of some kind by his making good use of his background in the aftermath of the October 18 firefight in Al-Barka town, Basilan. In that incident, 19 Special Forces soldiers were killed by Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) guerillas in an encounter that, for some reason, much of the Philippine media insists on calling a massacre.
As usual at a loss as to what the government response could be, Mr. Aquino III’s other Cabinet secretaries were rescued by Jimenez from a propaganda and media catastrophe they fear even more than a hostage-taking. He coined the phrase “all out justice” as an alternative to the call of the warmongers in government and the media for “all-out war” and to prevent perceptions that the government was doing nothing and would continue to do nothing to retaliate.
Another term for retaliation is vengeance, which is what people like Senator Francis Escudero and deposed President Joseph Estrada immediately demanded — and which the print and broadcast media echoed, apparently with even less thought than Estrada had put into it.
Thanks to Jimenez, Mr. Aquino managed, in his post-October 18 “all-out justice” statement, to seem to reject that call without any loss to his macho image. In the same breath, however, he ordered an offensive against the killers of the 19 Special Forces troopers. His military officials and spokespersons earlier identified the “killers” and the “enemy” as “renegade” MILF fighters, but have since claimed, despite MILF admission of responsibility, that they were actually members of the Abu Sayyaf group, and jihadists affiliated with Jemah Islamiyah.
The military then bombed a barangay or two, and launched ground offensives in and around Al-Barka, displacing thousands of residents and killing a number of people whom it said, depending on who was saying what to whom, and on what occasion, were either (1) renegade MILF fighters wanted for various crimes on whom the police had to serve arrest warrants; (2) members of the Abu Sayyaf; or (3) Jemah Islamiyah jihadists.
What the government is doing is pandering to the anti-Muslim sentiments and Christian majority chauvinism that are driving the demands for vengeance, an end to peace negotiations, and the annihilation of the MILF. The “all out justice” ploy also glosses over the fact that the 19 soldiers (1) were killed in a firefight that apparently occurred because of military incursion into an area the ceasefire agreement between the MILF and the Philippine government had designated as a neutral zone, which means that they were casualties of war and not massacre victims; and (2) were thrown into a potential conflict area without adequate preparation and even the most basic orientation, which makes their commanders primarily accountable.
At least two senior officers have indeed been relieved by the Armed Forces (AFP) command precisely for these lethal lapses, in what should be, even to the swivel-chair urban warriors with single -digit IQs who’re thirsting for Muslim blood, an obvious admission that it was the AFP that basically caused the problem.
But to save face, the AFP is making it seem it’s part of the solution. The bombings and ground assaults in Basilan therefore continued even during the November 1 holidays. The attacks displaced thousands of residents in the affected areas in a repeat of the total war offensives Estrada ordered in 2000 and which were launched in 2003 during the Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo regime. In 2003 thousands had to flee to evacuation centers where at least two children died, as the AFP pounded Cotabato’s Pikit town with artillery supposedly while in pursuit of Abu Sayyaf and Pentagon Gang bandits.
The only difference between the current campaign and the 2000 and 2003 offensives is the clever name it’s been given. Estrada, Arroyo and their generals at least called their offensives what they were. Aquino and his bright boys have had to fig-leaf what’s essentially the same thing with a phrase straight out of an advertising manual to peddle a product it can’t sell if it were correctly labeled. For its part, the military pretends it’s pursuing the Abu Sayyaf and other groups while actually itching to “punish” the MILF and its mass base in the communities.
What’s going on isn’t all-out justice, but all-out war and all-out deception. It’s deception for Aquino and company to use the word “justice” to mask an all-out offensive, and devious for the AFP to deny it’s after the MILF while it attacks MILF camps and bombs Muslim communities. And it’s not justice but its exact opposite to punish non-combatants for the military’s own incompetence and in furtherance of the same anti-Muslim, anti-peace bias that over the decades created the deeply- rooted, multi-faceted “Bangsa Moro problem” (the MILF’s own term for it).
Anti-Muslim bias drove the government policy of resettlement and Christian evangelization that has marginalized Muslims in Mindanao and led to legitimate demands for autonomy. But it is military and bureaucratic antagonism to a peace settlement, and their preference for the so-called military solution, that has kept the war going for decades.
Those puzzling over the contradiction between what the government and its military are doing and what they’re saying should stop wondering. No Philippine government has ever found it necessary to suit its words to its actions, and the Aquino government is no exception. Mr. Aquino and his government are no more committed to “all -out justice” in Mindanao than his predecessors were. They would otherwise not have had to fabricate that sly phrase to deceive and confuse the unwary. They would have immediately halted the military offensives in that troubled island, and launched an independent inquiry into who violated the terms of the ceasefire, instead of pretending to be for peace and justice while raining bombs on combatants and non-combatants alike.