COMMENTARY: Sleepless in Basilan

It can be recalled that on the fateful day of July 10, Basilan grabbed the international attention when some 14 Marines of the Philippine military were killed in an encounter with the forces of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), 10 of them were beheaded and mutilated. The MILF admitted the killing of the Marines in what they claimed as “a legitimate encounter” but denied the beheading and mutilation of the slain soldiers. While the government maintained that the Marines who were on patrol in search for the kidnapped Italian missionary Fr. Giancarlo Bossi and his abductors were “ambushed” by the combined forces of MILF and the notorious Abu Sayyaf Group. 

Past forward

The July 10 tragedy was not uncommon in the island-province. In 1993, 21 Marine officers and soldiers were mutilated, four of whom were beheaded, after an encounter with the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) in the town of Tuburan. The MNLF signed the Final Peace Agreement with the government three years after the incident. Also in July 2001, two other soldiers of the 55th Infantry Battalion were beheaded in Barangay Sinulatan in Tuburan town.

Dorie Kalahal, mayor of the municipality of Tuburan and former MNLF commander, in an interview with the media, said that “it's as if the past is being forcibly resurrected” and as if “we are seeing a repeat of 1993 when it’s now quiet in Basilan.”

The tipping point of a simmering public outrage was not the deaths of the 14 Marines in what the MILF claimed to be “a legitimate encounter”. The beheading and mutilation of the slain soldiers was. Archbishop Gaudencio Rosales of the Manila Archdiocese condemned the acts as “barbaric” and those who did it were “not human”. The sentiment was echoed elsewhere.

Unfortunately, the nagging question on who were responsible for the beheading and mutilation of the slain soldiers overshadowed an equally important question on who were to be blamed of the July 10 encounter, which has a direct bearing on the stalled peace talks between the government and the MILF. Top leaders of the MILF consistently denied responsibility of the beheading and mutilation of the slain soldiers. Unfortunately, they can't also point a finger as to who really did it.

Even the Bantay Ceasefire (Ceasefire Watch) volunteers, a grassroots peace monitor, were in a limbo after conducting a week-long independent investigations in Basilan. There were pieces of evidence that point to a certain group or person as responsible but it is simply difficult to connect these pieces of evidence in order to come up with a conclusion, an interim report of the Bantay Ceasefire said. The joint government and MILF fact-finding team named at least four suspects in the beheading and mutilation of the slain soldiers. 

Again, in the light of the past, it cannot be helped that some sectors will entertain doubt on the alleged perpetrators of the crime. Mayor Kalahal himself was a victim of a mistaken identity when he was wrongly accused as one of those who beheaded the Marines in 1993. Referring to the 1993 encounter, Kalahal said, “We had an encounter with the Marines but we didn't behead them because we left after the battle, taking their firearms.” The firefight, he claimed, prompted the lawless elements to proceed to the area. By inference, Kalahal was saying that the “lawless elements”, whose identities he did not identify, were the ones responsible for the beheading. 

It is tempting to believe that the same had happened on July 10. But considering that Basilan is predominantly a Yakan community known for being tightly-knit and clannish, it is hardly believable that these “lawless elements” act sporadically on their own without a leader or at least a figure they can rely on when things go wrong.

After five years of relative peace, the ghost of the past haunted Basilan again. The timing this time is of suspect as it happened five days before the implementation of the highly-controversial Human Security Act of 2007 or Republic Act 9372. Also, it happened at a time when the US Congress is deliberating to increase the proposed $11 million foreign military aid to the Philippines. A visit to the US Congress website revealed that the proposed aid will be increased to $30 million “intended to promote U.S. national security by contributing to regional and global stability, strengthening military support for democratically-elected governments and containing transnational threats, including terrorism… .” 

The MILF is no longer in the US terror list but the ASG is. Is the government's insistence that the “ambush” was done by the “combined forces of MILF and Abu Sayyaf” not a ploy to paint a climate of terror to warrant greater US military aid?

Steps Forward

Despite a number of differences between the accounts of the government and the MILF on the July 10 tragedy, it was established that it could have been averted if there was proper coordination between the Marine troops and that of the MILF fighters. The government admitted that the place is an MILF territory. Initial reports from Bantay Ceasefire (Ceasefire Watch) also indicated that “it was not an ambush but a plain encounter between the patrolling Marines and MILF fighters due to lack of proper coordination.” 

Even with the completion of the fact-finding mission jointly conducted by the government and the MILF, the July 10 tragedy is far from over. In the words of Acting Defense Chief Norberto Gonzales, the quest for justice for the Basilan tragedy has “no timeframe… it may take a week or years, it does not matter.” 

Therefore, as the closure of the Basilan tragedy is not in the immediate horizon, it is important for the government and the MILF to learn from the lessons and move forward with a commitment to immediately resume the stalled peace talks. This position was sounded off by Malaysia's Foreign Minister Dato Seri Syed, saying that the government's commitment to peace is important in order to have peace in Mindanao. Malaysia, along with Indonesia and Brunei, is a member of the International Monitoring Team helping the Philippine government and the MILF forge a peace pact. 

It is imperative for both sides to exhaust all available mechanisms under the framework of the ceasefire agreement without necessarily abandoning the quest for justice. Intensifying military action to appease the popular clamor for retribution will not work to solve the problem. 

There is also a need to look at the existing mechanisms to address problems related to the peace process to determine ways to enhance them to effectively prevent the occurrence of similar event in the future. One of which is the role of the civil society in the process. It is important, at this point, for both the government and the MILF to agree in enhancing and widen the role of the civil society to mobilize wider public support to the peace process among local government units and sectors thereby creating greater peace constituency in Mindanao and around the country. At the same time, the situation calls for a more urgent and focused international mediation.

The peace process may be threatened or hampered by events in the future similar to the one that happened in Basilan. What is important, however, is the stakeholders' commitment to a principled settlement of the Mindanao problem. 

(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Antonio F. Manaytay is the research officer of the Davao City-based Initiatives for International Dialogue.)