ADVOCACY MINDANOW: Biting the bullet in Zambo

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/16 September) — I was writing this Sunday morning and due to the volatile situation in Zamboanga City, events may overtake this when this comes out on print. I am confident though that how the crisis is being handled, may not change necessarily overnight.

It is significant to know that President NOY AQUINO, who was originally scheduled to just take a quick visit in Zamboanga last Friday, decided not to return to Manila. Instead, he pitched tent and took personal charge of the situation. Up to this writing he is still there! Those who know him well however know exactly this is characteristic of him. I will not be surprised if in taking off from Manila, he brought with him his own personal armaments like his favorite shooters gun or his assault weapons, just in case. Being a gun enthusiast, I can only imagine the collection he now has in his arsenal.

In the case of Department of the Interior and Local Government Secretary MAR ROXAS, he had been on the ground soon after the incident erupted and had taken full charge himself during the difficult first days of the siege. He stared eyeball to eyeball with the agony, devastation and violence.

BINAY ENTRY — Suddenly, Vice President JOJO BINAY got into the scene last Friday, announcing to the media in Manila that he had arranged a ceasefire with MNLF boss NUR MISUARI. He was able to personally connect by phone with his former college classmate NUR and took the initiative of trying to help find a peaceful and quick solution to the on-going situation.

No doubt, news about a ceasefire was initially greeted with glee. This was viewed as a first step towards an early and less bloody way of resolving the siege. But the rejoicing was short-lived because the AFP denied there was a ceasefire agreed and hence the military operations continued. Then, DILG Sec. ROXAS who was manning the front line personally came out categorically shooting down the ceasefire talk. He announced: “surrender first, then we talk”.

MISUARI CONFIRMATION —There was an initial confusion. To give credence to the BINAY announcement, the camp of NUR MISUARI confirmed it. Rev. ABSALON CERVEZA, regarded as MISUARI’s closest adviser, told the media by phone from his home in BANGA in South Cotabato that indeed, there was an agreement. A violent-tired and badly mauled Zamboanga saw some hope for an early end.

However, at the end of the day of VP BINAY’s Zamboanga Saturday visit, he flew back to Manila obviously feeling dejected and could only say: “sayang”. He told the public that the mechanisms to implement the ceasefire he brokered could not be agreed upon. A text message from his camp said: “VP Binay is sad that efforts 2 secure hostages didn’t prosper. MNLF&PH forces wanted peace but terms 4 peaceful resolution were rejected by Pnoy. VP asks all 2 pray 4 peace in Zamboanga”.

ROXAS, BINAY FORMULAS —From where I sat, I could give my own thoughts why this happened. There was a big difference between the ROXAS and the BINAY formulas. (I do not wish to succumb to the temptation of ascribing a pre-2016 square off between these two honorable presidentiables, as some quarters are now saying.)

Rather, there are some basic, fundamental differences in their formula, although both point to the same objective: end the standoff.

VP BINAY’s ceasefire, from all indications would mean allowing safe passage of the MNLF elements back to where they came from (mostly Sulu) in exchange for the safe release of the hostages. Knowing NUR MISUARI, I am sure he would not agree to a cessation unless his men were allowed to withdraw with their firearms. Like what happened during the first siege in Zamboanga City in 2001 called “Cabatangan incident” (so named after the place where the MNLF had its central headquarters in a promontory overlooking the whole of the city and the Zamboanga airport.)

Sec. ROXAS, who had been on the ground right after the MNLF incursion and had seen the ugly face of the fighting, stood pat on his position: “surrender first, then we talk”. Meaning, yes to a cessation of hostilities but no safety guarantees for withdrawal with firearms; no repeat of the Cabatangan formula. He was taking a hard-line policy: “Surrender or we fight”. No compromise. Those who started all this must not be allowed to go scot-free. They must face the consequences.

PRESIDENT CONCURS —Clearly PRESIDENT NOYNOY concurred with the Roxas approach. It is a clear signal that henceforth, no soft gloves for those who challenge government, never mind the possible costs, political or otherwise. Biting the bullet, so to speak.

The aftermath of all this will be known later, than sooner.

In the meantime, I have some unsolicited advices, if I may.

NO POLITICS HERE —First, let us not give some political undertones to the ROXAS-BINAY “stand-off”. Both were in earnest to help. The only lapse was that VP BINAY, in his enthusiasm to be of help to find a solution, immediately announced to the media his rapprochement with NUR before vetting or checking it out first with the leadership. At first, I really thought that he had prior contacts with the PRESIDENT on this. We all know that a ceasefire is not a stand-alone milestone. It has ramifications principally on what the strategic policy of the leadership is. Then its feasibility depends on whether it is a win-win formula for both the govt and the MNLF. If at the expense of one, it won’t fly. This is not easy to do. But yes, VP BINAY gave it his best shot.

GOVERNMENT PREVAILS —Second, there are calculated consequences if the Zamboanga siege is finally settled with an all-out military operation, as what now appears to be. No doubt, the superior forces of government will eventually prevail. But no doubt, there will be lives lost. Both government and MNLF forces will suffer casualties but this is a “given”. What will be tragic will be the loss of lives of innocent civilians who just happened to be there in the midst of this. I know this is also part of the calculation by those who make this judgment call. Whether it will all be worth it or whether cleaning up the Zamboanga mess will only end right there and not trigger a wider problem, is something we will know later.

FINAL WORD — One final word that may save more lives. Before the final military assault is launched, may I propose the following last-ditch attempt for the sake of the many innocent hostages who face the real risk of being sacrificed.
Allow those MNLF fighters who may be wounded or who are old, or tired or are ready to now go back home to be allowed safe passage, without their firearms and in exchange, the MNLF releases an equal number of hostages to also go back to their families.

JUDGEMENT CALLS —The bottom line here is: judgment calls carry with it accountability and responsibility at the end of the day. Both PRESIDENT AQUINO and CHAIRMAN MISUARI must face up to all this. (Lawyer Jesus G. Dureza was government peace panel chair in the negotiations with the MILF under the Arroyo administration from 2001 to 2003 and was later named Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (2005 to 2008). He heads Advocacy MindaNOW Foundation, Inc. and was recently named publisher of the Davao City-based Mindanao Times.)