Architect and saboteur

Bayanihang Bangsamoro (OPAPP Photo)
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A SENATE “REINVESTIGATION” of the Mamasapano incident to coincide with its first anniversary on January 25 this year has been proposed by Senator Juan Ponce Enrile, who claims to have new information relevant to establishing what really happened.

But coming as it does on practically the eve of the May elections, the reinvestigation will be solely in furtherance of the political aims of the senators who’re running for either reelection or other posts this year. It is unlikely to yield different results, and would probably re-affirm the conclusion of the Senate committee on public order chaired by Senator (and presidential candidate) Grace Poe that the incident was, as popularly perceived, “a massacre.”

Mamasapano torpedoed what was otherwise smooth sailing for the passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL). A combination of Congressional bigotry, politics and cluelessness has so far prevented its passage. But that impasse is fundamentally President Benigno Aquino III’s own doing: it was he, after all, who approved the Mamasapano police operation despite its implications on the peace process.

Indispensable to the realization of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB) signed between the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the Aquino administration, the BBL—and the end of armed hostilities between the Philippine government and the MILF—were supposed to be among the legacies of the Aquino administration.

The relative speed with which the process that led to the signing of the CAB, which included US-brokered meetings outside the country between Aquino and the MILF leadership, had been near-universally hailed in 2014, and it was thought that there were no obstacles to the eventual passage of the BBL and the creation of an autonomous region over which the MILF would have control.

The January 25, 2015 Mamasapano incident changed all that. The January 25, 2015 clash between the Special Action Force (SAF) of the Philippine National Police and several armed groups, which cost 58 lives including those of 44 SAF policemen, provided the excuse for the overt expression of reservations among the non-Muslim majority over the wisdom of both the peace agreement and the government’s “grant” of Muslim autonomy.

A March 2015 survey by public opinion Pulse Asia found that 44% of Filipinos were opposed to the passage of the BBL. The politicians were quick to exploit what they perceived to be overwhelming public outrage over the incident and doubts over the sincerity of the MILF, whose forces, although suffering casualties as well, were involved in the encounter.

Echoing anti-Muslim sentiments, a number of congressmen and senators called the incident a massacre, and claimed that it was undisputed proof of MILF insincerity and treachery. The anti-BBL congressmen and senators went on to hold public hearings which served merely to confirm their views. But they also introduced amendment after amendment to the BBL draft bill, while making its passage within the lifetime of the Aquino administration problematic.

Apparently in reaction to the Mamasapano incident, an ad hoc committee of the House of Representatives introduced and passed its own version of the BBL on May 20, 2015. The Senate followed suit with its Bangsamoro Autonomous Region Law, which was introduced on August 11, 2015.

These were the results of some of the most brazen expressions of anti-Muslim prejudice since 2000, when then President Joseph Estrada’s policy of all-out war against the MILF was received with much enthusiasm even by the media. With one eye on the 2016 elections, among the senators who did not conceal their prejudices were Alan Peter Cayetano and Ferdinand Marcos, Jr., who’re both currently running for vice president of the Republic.

Congressional cluelessness was obvious in such comments as that the BBL would lead to secession, but what was even worse was that no one among the 200-plus gentlemen and ladies of the Philippine Congress seemed to realize that Bangsamoro autonomy—premised on the passage of the BBL—was part of the Aquino administration’s and its patron, the United States’, strategic interests.

The United States had been part of the peace process since 2003 when then MILF chair
Hashim Salamat wrote US President George W. Bush for help in facilitating a peace agreement between the MILF and the then Arroyo administration. Salamat appealed to “the basic principle of American fairness and sense of justice” to justify US intervention in internal Philippine affairs. The US embassy in the Philippines and US Institute for Peace (USIP), according to diplomatic cables leaked by Wikileaks, entered into negotiations with the MILF, with the then US ambassador to the Philippines even travelling to Mindanao for meetings with the MILF leadership in its headquarters.

The Bush administration apparently saw the Salamat appeal as an opportunity to boost US economic and strategic aims in the Philippines, which include US multinational access to the natural resources of the prospective MILF autonomous region, as well as the possibility of obtaining military basing rights.

Mindanao produces nearly half of Philippine food requirements. It has gold and nickel reserves. Some estimates say that Mindanao waters hold 67 million barrels of oil and 228 billion cubic feet of natural gas. During the current, post-Bush period of the US “pivot to Asia,” US troops in the Philippines have been based in Mindanao for over a decade, although supposedly only on a “temporary” basis under the terms of the Visiting Forces Agreement.

During the Arroyo administration, MILF spokesmen began airing through the Philippine media the group’s openness to having US military bases in the prospective MILF territory. Although foreign affairs would be the responsibility of the national government, which has the exclusive power to allow or disallow foreign military bases, the MILF would presumably have a lot to say on the matter should it ever come up—and should the prospective Bangsamoro autonomous territory ever be realized.

These considerations help explain US enthusiasm and support for the peace agreement between the MILF and the Philippine government. Both US support and its own interests, on the other hand, explain the speed with which the Aquino administration arrived at an agreement with the MILF. There is of course also the fact that among the world’s Muslim insurgencies, the MILF leadership has proven to be the most accommodating and the most willing to compromise.

The Aquino administration also sees the achievement of peace in the Muslim areas of conflict in Mindanao as crucial to its unrelenting focus on ending the 46-year old communist-led guerilla war solely through military means. Peace with the MILF would release its troops for combat in those areas in Mindanao where the New People’s Army is active—and where, according to military intelligence, it is strongest. Simply put, the Aquino policy is peace with the MILF, and war with the NPA.

But police bungling of the Mamasapano operation has put the entire peace process with the MILF at risk, thereby wreaking havoc on the military’s sanguine calculations that it could finally crush the NPA after years of unrealized threats to do so. The operation ignored the provisions of the peace agreement between the MILF and the Philippine government—and took place with President Benigno Aquino III’s approval, in another demonstration of his astounding failure of leadership. The lead advocate and architect of the peace process as an integral part of both allowing US troops and multinationals into Mindanao as well as of defeating the NPA has been its most effective saboteur.

(First published in BusinessWorld. Image from the OPAPP website)

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