War Fever Hits Mindanao as Per Predictable Script
by Manuel L. Quezon III
Last year, a former Cabinet official told me that conflict in Mindanao is essentially “self-containing.” What do you mean, I asked.
As I understood it, it works along these lines: The military undertakes an offensive; the leadership of whatever Muslim group the military is targeting melts away, seeking safe havens in Palawan and Sabah; Muslim families in the affected areas immediately send their families to evacuation centers; the evacuation centers are overwhelmed; the UN begins to speak of a “humanitarian crisis”; foreign media arrives, to cover the humanitarian crisis; foreign and public scrutiny become so intense, military offensives must cease; peace, for the time being, is restored. It is a tired, old, predictable, and tragic, script but one that serves to prevent violence from spiraling out of hand.
The official warned, however, that the Cabinet is divided into two camps, the “Doves” and the “Hawks.” The doves believe that for peace to truly last, hostilities have to be prevented from breaking out for about ten years. This is the time it takes for things to really calm down, and for residents to be more used to peaceful coexistence instead of gearing up for the next fight. The “hawks,” on the other hand, either believe in a purely military solution to the so-called Muslim problem, or worse, they view fighting in Mindanao — since it’s a “self-containing” problem anyway — as a convenient way to distract national attention from the problems of the administration.
The problem, as the official told me last year, is that of the two Muslim rebel groups, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), the MILF is a formidable enemy.
The MILF, according to the official, retains formidable formations on the ground. Therefore, they have the capacity to make a mess of things in their areas, which discourages aggressive AFP operations. The official gave an example involving the last time fighting broke out between the MILF and the AFP. The MILF embarked on systematically blowing up and tearing down electric poles over a large swathe of territory: so while the fighting could be sorted out, and peace restored relatively quickly, the damage to infrastructure — and thus, the damage to the local economy — took months to repair.
But what about, say, the Abu Sayyaf, which at the time was in the headlines as the main target of interest for the Philippine government (which also kept suggesting there was some sort of tacit alliance between the MILF and the Abu Sayyaf)?
The MILF, the official said, also has something the Abu Sayyaf lacks: It can engage in reprisals if conflict escalates. If an offensive were launched against the MILF, the immediate result would be bombings in Davao, the Visayas or the inter-island ferries, and Metro Manila: the MILF has the network and the means. The Abu Sayyaf, on the other hand, has been heavily hit (but not knocked out) and so cannot retaliate. While there may be individual fighters or groups of fighters, who may be MILF, MNLF, or Abu Sayyaf, or all three, depending on the circumstances, in general, there are two issues and it isn’t helpful to blur the two: handling the MILF with kid gloves (the MILF enjoys warm ties with Malaysia, after all) can’t be imperiled by going after the Abu Sayyaf, and vice versa.
But in recent weeks, things have come to pass that reminded me of that conversation. Much of the year so far involved the repercussions of Malaysia saying it was so exasperated, it was inclined to pull out of the peace process in Mindanao. At the same time, electrical transmission towers in Mindanao have been bombed; most recently, a bombing last week plunged half the vast island into darkness for some hours. Then a Philippine Army facility was bombed, just as the president of the Philippines and the US ambassador were due to be in the area.
The existence of the “hawks” — essentially, a war party — in the Arroyo administration must be known not only to officialdom, but to allied governments such as the United States, to neighboring countries like Malaysia, and to Muslim groups as well. This may account for why the United States sent the FBI to investigate the most recent bombing, and why, for some time, there were warnings from Western governments about attacks. The sending of the FBI, however, seems to have taken place without so much as a by-your-leave from Philippine authorities, which may suggest an ongoing American effort to ensure it’s not dragged into hostilities on the eve of the American presidential elections. Or it may suggest collusion with the Americans, on the part of the war party. To further complicate matters, public opinion doesn’t seem to be pinning the blame on the Mindanao bombings specifically on the usual suspects — more than one (Christian, mind you) Mindanao resident has ventured the opinion that the government itself is as likely a culprit as Muslim rebels. This kind of thinking, if widespread, doesn’t speak well for the propaganda prospects of hostilities resuming in Mindanao. Few would be inclined to rally behind the authorities.
In the meantime, despite healthy rice harvests, the price of rice has been escalating in Mindanao. This has local officials stumped. They can’t explain it. The national government can’t explain it, either. But it does make sense if the price is being driven up, because unbeknownst to officials, the citizenry, Christian and Muslim, in Mindanao have come to a sobering conclusion. War is inevitable, and so it’s time to hoard rice.