THE SEPARATIST: In reply to Iqbal (2)

KYOTO, Japan (MindaNews/21 August) — I am, first of all, grateful to Mohagher Iqbal for taking time out of his busy schedule to respond to what I wrote. It indicates a number of things that I actually find admiring of the MILF, despite my disagreements with some of its fundamental tenets. First the armed movement shows not only a sensitivity to differing views, but more importantly, it does not hesitate to engage its critics. You do not see this kind of reception from the Philippine government, especially during the time of Gloria Arroyo, who simply discarded the voices of those whose perspectives were different from hers but who were hoping still for a debate in the name of enriching further our democracy.

Second, despite some of the adjectives he used (“negative sweeping statement,” “mudslinging,” “stinging,” “chastise,” etc.), Iqbal actually is fair in his response, even quoting extensively from my piece. The hurt is there for being criticized (hence his use of the above adjectives), but he is also willing to set this aside and explain as dispassionately as possible the reasons why the MILF wanted the AFP out of the area of conflict. All the
more with Datu Michael Mastura, who remains, as ever, committed to intellectual/ideological discussion and who always assumes that his
interlocutor has no interest other than that of debate and enlightenment.

Hence this appreciation for Iqbal’s equally pointed response.
That said, I remain unconvinced by his explanation, and again for a good number of reasons.

True, there is a de facto ceasefire agreement between the AFP and the MILF, but this is a lame excuse that has not answered the substance of my
criticism – the MILF’s inability to keep some of its commanders from going after each other. Iqbal claims that the AFP’s intrusion into MILF territory was because it sought to continue promoting its “proxy war” by allowing CAFGU units to come to the support of one of the commanders involved in the conflict. This is the first time we’ve heard about this.

But here is the rub: if the AFP is indeed involved in stoking the flames of conflict, how come the MILF has also allowed these CAFGU units to go into its territory? Why did the MILF let that warring commander bring in CAFGU units if these formally belonged to the other side, the AFP? Or put it differently, if this commander can do it with ease, what does this suggest of the MILF leadership’s control over its subordinates (which was the main point of my commentary)?

Why blame the AFP for fomenting a “proxy war,” when in fact this battle  looked more like the continuation of a rido? According to the Asia
Foundation, rido is actually the more serious problem facing the Bangsamoro (I disagree with Iqbal that the AFP is the biggest stumbling block to the conflict. General Benjamin Dolorfino’s official statements and actions, not to mention the writings of Mindanews columnist Gail Ilagan, suggest that the military has done a lot in keeping war hawks in its ranks under control. One cannot say the same thing of the MILF if you go by the Ombra Kato 2008 attacks and now this recent conflict).
If this was indeed rido, more questions need to be posed to Iqbal. Why is this problem still festering in its own territory? What has the MILF done to eliminate it? And how has rido affected its organization cohesiveness?  Moreover, to invoke a formal agreement while 3,500 families joined the ranks of the internally displaced, is inexcusable. Those are women, children and men running for their lives. The AFP commanders who ordered the bombing should be commended for putting a halt to the conflict, and bring back some semblance of order so that these mothers, sons and daughters, and husbands could return.

The odd thing about Iqbal’s response is he says nothing about their fate, more concerned as he appears to be with keeping the agreed boundaries
separating two combatants preserved. But what of the evacuees’ interests? Is their welfare secondary only to the agreements among those with guns? In face, may I inquire what the MILF has done to ensure the safe return of these 3,500 families?

Iqbal is correct though: from my Kyoto (not Tokyo, alas) perch, it is next to impossible to know the “facts of situation” behind this recent upsurge in violence within its territory and by MILF commanders themselves! But neither has his explanation that the MILF demanding the AFP not be involved in the conflict a convincing one. For me it simply confirms one fascinating twist in the separatist organization’s colorful history: that for the first time, its internal fissures have become more apparent.

**

As for Datu Michael Mastura, I am flattered that for once we agreed on something. Thank you both, once again, for the response. Let the discussion continue…
[Patricio N. Abinales’ latest book is Orthodoxy and History in the Muslim
Mindanao Narrative, published by Ateneo de Manila University Press.
Beginning September he will be a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International
Center for Scholars in Washington, DC, where he will do research and write
about the USAID experience in Mindanao]*

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