Commentary: MILF-GRP peace process is serious
By Menardo Wenceslao
General Santos City (19 September) -- The prospects for peace in Mindanao have taken an alarming turn in recent weeks. Many people on both sides of the conflict have returned to the old "war and vengeance"rhetoric. Fortunately, some calmer heads are encouraging the two sides to take careful steps into the uncertain future and not let their thirst for retribution distort their wisdom.
They understand the situation is dangerous. And they know a return to past violence would not only destroy all the progress that has been made in the last years but would undermine the possibility for future reconciliation. They know once a war has started, it is difficult to end, and they know the future of Mindanao hangs in the balance.
For those who love peace, 10 July will be known forever as a dark day. On that day, 14 Marines were killed in fighting with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in Basilan, and 10 of their bodies were mutilated by an unidentified party. MILF has taken responsibility for killing the Marines in legitimate combat but claims its fighters were not involved in the beheadings.
The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) does not agree; it believes MILF is responsible for the killings and the beheadings as well. This impasse has the region on the brink of war. Diplomatic experts believe the situation is too tense to be left to the parties involved. A third party -- namely the Malaysian-led International Monitoring Team (IMT) -- should get involved to settle the dispute.
Too much anger remains on both sides to quickly get to the facts of what happened on 10 July. Certain wise members of the Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP) and MILF realize this and are trying to get the IMT involved. Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process Jesus Dureza believes that "in a very polarized scenario," assistance is needed. He added, "We don't want to squander the gains we have already because of this incident."
MILF believes members of the al-Qaeda-supported terrorist Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) were responsible for the beheadings. An MILF statement said ASG "can easily do (-LEFT-BRACKET-)beheadings(-RIGHT-BRACKET-), it is their forte." MILF added the beheadings were possibly carried out by an angry relative of someone who had been killed by AFP forces. "At the fit of anger or rage, man or any relative can become beast at that given moment," the statement said. Although this might be true, it does not bring the two sides any closer to peace.
AFP statements have been no more helpful. By issuing a strict ultimatum to turn over those responsible for killing the Marines, AFP officials have not allowed the work of a third-party moderator to be possible. Their threats of "punitive action" could result in a full-scale war; although Lieutenant Colonel Bartolome Bacarro of the AFP public information office denies this. He said, "The message would be reiteration of the call for MILF to present the perpetrators of the barbaric act.... It's not really a war; it's a punitive action against the perpetrators." Many believe, however, this difference will not help to lessen the impact of the hostilities.
Baccaro went on to deny claims that AFP would use this opportunity to attack the MILF leadership. He said, "We are focused on the perpetrators only. The MILF is not a target as an organization."
MILF chief peace negotiator Mohager Iqbal responded to the ultimatum by saying, "We cannot turn over our forces. There is no moral basis, because that is a legitimate encounter. There is no basis for that in the cease-fire agreement." He went on to encourage all parties to wait for the results of the IMT investigation. He said, "They are mounting the operation without waiting for the conduct of an investigation by a neutral group."
MILF spokesman Eid Kabalu warned of the impact of any new fighting on Basilan villagers, saying that many had already fled their homes. Dureza acknowledged this was likely. Despite the horrific events of 10 July, the innocent people of Basilan wonder what they have done to deserve this treatment. It would be much easier and safer simply to wait for the results of a third-party IMT investigation and settle the matter at that point.
Keeping the channels of peace open must be the number-one priority to ensure that nothing like the 10 July tragedy happens again. The responsible parties will be punished in due time, if an investigation is allowed to proceed without the threat of a full-scale war. Even Dureza has said the government does not wish to jeopardize future talks. Why, then, the hurry? Justice can still be served while avoiding further conflict. (PIA SarGen) [top]