The siege of Zamboanga City in Mindanao took place for almost three weeks. It was 9 September, before the break of dawn, when the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) occupied their first four barrios marking the commencement of their apparent standoff with the government troops. When morning came, the situation went from bad to worse: bullets were hurled, staccatos of gunfire were heard in midair, towns were empty, people were scurrying away from what became a battlefield, and the city was virtually shut down. After 20 days of tense conflict, the Philippine Government announced with air of victory that the Zamboanga siege is finally over. With thousands of displaced individuals currently living in crowded camps, MNLF leader Nur Misuari remaining at large, and peace negotiations having possibilities to be derailed, it can be posited that the crisis might be far from over.
This all began when the MNLF, founded by then university lecturer Nur Misuari, signed a framework peace treaty with the Philippine government in 1996 leading to the creation of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). The signing of another landmark peace deal between the Government and Moro Islamic Liberation Front (or MILF, a rival group which broke away from the MNLF in 1976) last year elicited impression that the MNLF was relegated to the sideline, prompting the group to declare the independence of their ‘Bangsamoro Republik’ on 12 August 2013. A month after, some MNLF members were spotted marching towards the Zamboanga City Hall to hoist the Republik’s banner.
This article gives a brief analysis on how the recent Zamboanga standoff could affect the ongoing peace process in Southern Philippines and how the Government’s initial response to the crisis created other problems. In conclusion, a background on the issue of secessionism in Southern Philippines and prospects for the attainment of peace are discussed succinctly.
Derailing the peace process
The Zamboanga siege could derail the ongoing peace process in Mindanao in some ways. For one, Misuari, with his present whereabouts still unknown, could form alliances and create an established and united front to go against the Government. Misuari’s eagerness to position himself as a major political player could be traced back a decade ago when he led 300 MNLF members to occupy the Cabatangan Complex in the same city and reportedly used civilians as human shields. The creation of formidable front may not be farfetched after all. For another, the siege could implicitly suggest that any peace agreement between the Government and separatist groups will no longer warrant the end of war in battle-torn Mindanao. The recent outturn of events in the siege was a testament to how resolute the group is in their quest to self-determination.
An overriding concern
Reports identified that around 70,000 people were evacuated from their places of residence which eventually became a warzone. Refugees crowded out in centers deplorably, with most of them especially children suffering from disease outbreaks and dire insufficiency of basic necessities. Also, reports had it that a total of twelve (12) civilians were killed while seventy (70) were wounded during the standoff. President Benigno Aquino III stated that the peace and safety of civilians caught in the crossfire is his paramount concern. If this really were, he would have called for an immediate ceasefire, exhausted all efforts to conduct negotiations with the group, and attempted to bring resolution to this problem by not hastily resorting to military combat as the embattled towns were home to a number of civilians.
The Aquino government could possibly have prolonged the crisis deliberately to veer the public attention away from the infamous ‘pork barrel’ scam issue. Some speculated that the government might be using the situation of the refugees to show that the President needs to keep emergency and other pork barrel-related funds into his office. The President’s obscure position on the standoff can attest to this. As one analyst puts it, “[i]t was only after one week that the half-hearted military decided to drop a few bombs and to wage an all out war. And even before the crisis is over they are now boasting that not only do they liberate the hostages from harm but are rehabilitating and rebuilding their traumatized lives.” The President was criticized for aggravating the crisis and in the process being unable to end the crisis speedily and decisively.
Prospects for peace and order
Southern Philippines, geographically referred to as Mindanao, comprise most of the poorest provinces in the country. Poverty and underdevelopment are so prevalent in this region as compared to the country’s two other major island groups, Luzon and Visayas. Though the majority of Mindanaons are Muslims and Muslims form the largest non-Christian group in the country, they remain to be a minority in a predominantly Christian nation. Cultural let alone ethnic differences, its severe lack of access to resources vital for development, and the ongoing struggle for separation all account for Mindanao’s present backwardness. Separatist movements continue to operate within Mindanao for decades and the yearning for secession goes much stronger now than before. The Moro people (Muslim Filipinos living in Muslim Mindanao) are aspiring for independence since the Spanish occupation during the 16th century.
The Moro independence struggle, now considered as the longest in Asia and maybe the whole world, has no definite indicator of when it will end. The crisis in Zamboanga City might have ended for now but it gives no assurance of an ultimate battle. After 17 years, the 1996 peace treaty is still giving this episodic scenario a cliffhanger and dragging on without final resolution. The recent developments in the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro between the Government and the MILF are praiseworthy only if the agreement is comprehensive enough to address the political status of Bangsamoro and the problems of mass poverty, underdevelopment, neglect, and conflicts besetting Muslim Mindanao. As former US President Dwight Eisenhower said, “peace is the climate of freedom”. Only when rights are protected, development is sustained, and lives are preserved can we proclaim that the crisis is over and peace is attained.
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