RIVERMAN’S VISTA: War and Peace, Pros and Cons

QUEZON CITY (MindaNews/23 October) — This is not the first time, and will definitely not be the last – the winds of war hovering once again over the great island of Mindanao.

The cries for all-out war from politicians to the media to even ordinary people are loud and clear; a call to arms justified by the murder of 19 young soldiers of the Republic in Basilan by Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) forces. Suspend the ceasefire, many are clamoring, at least until we have brought the murderers to justice. Break off the negotiations with the MILF and let’s finish this war once and for all, some even suggesting. There have even been calls for Secretary Ging Deles, the President’s peace adviser, and Dean Marvic Leonen, the government’s chief negotiator with the MILF, to resign.

On the other hand, those who reject war have also been passionate. One of my Facebook friends in fact posted this in his wall: “To those who are calling for war against the MILF, have your war, but not in Mindanao! Do it in Luzon or in Manila. And you Mindanawons who are itching for war against the MILF, you can join your comrades in arms in Luzon and Manila, including those in the Visayas, and have your war in Imperial Manila. Most Mindanawons, including our Muslim and IP brethren want peace.”

On the assertion by my friend that most Mindanawons want peace: while  I wish this were true, I also know there are many good and sincere people from our island who, fed up by the conflict, support the war option.

That is why it is important to do an objective analysis of the options, a kind of balance sheet, anticipating the costs and benefits of how we can respond to what happened in Basilan. “To war” or “to peace” (using these words as verbs), what are the pros and cons?

Let’s start with the reasons why we should go to war against the MILF and what positive outcomes we could possibly expect from such a decision. The first reason is to punish the perpetrators of this latest atrocity in Basilan. Let me be clear – there is no justification for the ambush in Basilan. True, the government soldiers might have miscalculated and encroached on off-limits territory but the response of the MILF forces was clearly over-the-top; and if the reports of the execution of some soldiers after their capture is true, no ceasefire violation by government forces can justify such war crimes. But is it necessary to go to war to bring the justice the murderers in Basilan?

Clearly not. The ceasefire mechanisms in place allow for dealing with these incidents. Using these mechanisms, I expect the government to be forceful with the MILF so that justice is obtained and equally important so that this is not repeated Besides, in a worst case scenario, the government could take limited (geographically and in terms of the force used), unilateral steps to bring criminals to justice. The current ceasefire agreement actually allows government to carry out peace and order missions; clearly this is one. But there is no need to attack the MILF everywhere and indiscriminately.

Since war is not necessary to ensure justice for our fallen soldiers, what appears to be the more valid reason for all out war is to once and for all finish off, as a viable revolutionary and military force the MILF and to end the conflict decisively.

But is this really doable? Indeed, let’s do some hard-nosed thinking. Assuming it is a good thing to completely defeat the MILF, is that even achievable? And if it is achievable, are the costs worth the outcome? To both these questions – is complete victory achievable and will it be worth the costs – the objective answer is clearly no.

The fact is that war in Mindanao continues because neither side can ever expect to win. On the side of the government, we just do not have enough bullets, bombs and yes soldiers to sustain an all-out war that will end in victory. Time and again, whether in the war with the MNLF in the 1970s or the more recent skirmishes in 2008 resulting from the aborted signing of the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain, there is no possibility of the Philippine military winning decisively against the MILF. Yes, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) can make the MILF run and hide, but sooner or later our soldiers, too, will be faced with both human resource and logistical limitations that will make complete victory impossible. In the end, we will end up where we are now – a permanent stalemate.

The only possible route to complete victory against the MILF is to destroy without discrimination and mercy all Moro communities that support this revolutionary force. Casualties in the tens of thousands, both Moros and non-Moros, would have to be tolerated to achieve final victory. Collateral damage and destruction to thousands of Moro and non-Moro communities would also have to be accepted. In the end, final victory would be pyrrhic; indeed, it would be a victory of the dead. And as a result of such an empty victory, we will have to face a hostile Muslim world that will turn against us (and our brothers and sisters working in the Middle East) with a vengeance. To top all the consequences, we will be at the receiving end of terrorist attacks not just from homegrown but also from global Islamic terrorism.

To sum up, war is not necessary to bring the Basilan murderers to justice. War will never lead to permanent and decisive victory against the MILF. And even if the MILF is defeated militarily, the costs are going to be enormous, indeed unbearable.

How about peace? Why should we do it? What can we expect from a successful peace process?

Peace is our only option in Mindanao. The only way that what happened in Basilan would not be repeated is if we are able to once and for all demilitarize the island. Without demilitarization, Basilan and the killing (also last week) of missionary Fr. Pops Tentorio will be a continuous refrain in our island. But demilitarization will not happen overnight nor will it happen because people see the light; it can only be a result of a successful peace process (with both the MILF and the National Democratic Front) that addresses legitimate and fundamental concerns of development, justice and governance.

Is peace achievable? Definitely. Certainly, a just peace is more attainable than complete victory in all-out war. But it would be difficult. In negotiating peace, everything must be on the table. There should be no sacred cows – including the MILF’s demand for a sub-state or the Philippine government’s refusal to consider constitutional change. Both options should be discussed and analyzed not only in terms of what is desirable but is deliverable within the term of President Aquino. If anything, the President’s determination to carry on with the peace negotiations even after the Basilan massacre should be appreciated as a commitment to the peace process. Instead of calling for the resignation of Deles and Leonen, we should support them to carry on their mission so that finally Basilan or Tentorio will never happen again.

As I have written before, those of us who believe in peace should not take sides between the MILF and the government; instead, we should help provide the atmosphere, the space, even the ideas to bring the two sides together.

Finally, for peace to be attained, there must be trust and confidence between the parties, and in the end, between the principals (not just the leaders but the peoples) whom the peace panels represent. That is why justice for what happened in Basilan is essential, indeed, a condition for peace to overcome war.

I do not consider what happened in that island isolated or accidental; something like that has to be deliberate and intended. And certainly it is not the first time it has happened. That is why I support decisive, limited, if necessary unilateral (but I prefer that it be done through the ceasefire mechanisms) measures on the part of government so that the soldiers and their families are given justice. But total, all-out war? In any objective balance sheet of pros and cons, that is not an option. Peace, this balance sheet shows, is the only answer. (MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Dean Tony La Viña is a human rights and environmental lawyer from Cagayan de Oro City. He was formerly, from January-June 2010, a member of the Government of the Philippines Peace Panel that negotiated with the MILF. He is currently the Dean of the Ateneo School of Government. Dean Tony can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Facebook: [email protected] and on Twitter: tonylavs)