MALAYBALAY CITY (MindaNews/13 September) – In successive interviews by national TV networks on the Zamboanga City standoff, Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) spokesperson Emmanuel Fontanilla kept saying that their forces arrived in that southern port city for a peace rally and dialogue, but were harassed by government troops. And whenever pressed for proposals on how to end the crisis, he insisted on a third-party mediator, in particular a foreign intermediary.
One may give Fontanilla’s statement the benefit of a doubt in that a week before the standoff some MNLF members had held a peace rally in Davao City without incident. There’s a catch though – unlike their comrades in Davao, the MNLF members who are now holed up in Zamboanga brought in guns. In addition, MNLF commander Habier Malik said they intended to hoist the front’s flag at the City Hall in furtherance of Nur Misuari’s alleged declaration of independence on August 12 in Sulu.
(Misuari is the founding chair of the MNLF, which waged a war for Moro independence after the March 18, 1968 Jabidah Massacre where Moro recruits to the Philippine military were killed for reportedly refusing to be part of Oplan Merdeka. Merdeka is said to be a plan hatched by President Ferdinand Marcos to invade Sabah, a region north of Borneo controlled by Malaysia but is historically part of the Sultanate of Sulu.)
Maybe the military had overreacted, maybe they hadn’t. But what do you expect the soldiers would do at the sight of several armed men entering a city? And how should we interpret the act of hoisting a flag other than being an act of sovereignty? It was apparently meant to provoke government, if not to bolster reports that Misuari had indeed issued a declaration of independence from his home province.
Coming on the eve of the resumption of peace talks between government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in Kuala Lumpur, it can be said that Misuari means to use the Zamboanga standoff as a highly-charged bargaining chip with the administration and the rival front. He has repeatedly cited the incomplete implementation of the 1996 Final Peace Agreement as the reason for his group’s dissatisfaction.
Now that the crisis has lasted almost a week without a resolution in sight, President Aquino’s crisis managers are hard pressed to reach out to Misuari to break the impasse. So far, that has not happened. Misuari appears to be deliberately hiding from public view, opting instead to let his alter-egos do the talking – and the fighting. He could be trying to avoid legal complications once the whole thing ends, a lesson learned from the Kabatangan hostage-taking incident in 2001, also in Zamboanga City. It’s also possible he wants to prolong the standoff in the hope of inciting his supporters in other areas to rise up in arms too.
So far, the only “spillover” has been the clash on Thursday between rebels and government forces in Basilan. The BIFF, a breakaway group of the MILF concentrated in parts of Maguindanao, claimed it was their men who figured in the clash.
But if Misuari thinks he can once again rouse Moro nationalism to serve whatever his game plan is, he must be living in a time warp. Realities have changed a lot since the grim aftermath of the abortive Oplan Merdeka. He may have a legitimate grievance, but it doesn’t clothe him with the moral authority to start a war by endangering the lives of hapless civilians – and those of his men.
Waging war is one thing. Aiming a gun at unarmed people is another.
When I was in college I read in an underground newsletter that on 7 February 1974, a few hours before government soldiers attacked and pulverized Jolo town in Sulu, MNLF fighters gathered all the women, children, priests and nuns and placed them in relatively safe areas before going to battle.
Alas, the Zamboanga standoff tells us that the days of the noble mujahideen have long ended. (MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. H. Marcos C. Mordeno can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)