FIELDS OF HOPE: The Basilan Crisis: Search for Justice and Search for Peace

I remember that the Shariff Aguak incident last July 2006 and the Midsayap incident last March 2007 did not escalate. The existing ceasefire mechanism was able to handle it and prevented the possible collapse of the Peace Talks. President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo even wrote and issued a statement upholding the Primacy of the Peace Process and instructing military field commanders to follow her order.

The President issued the statement on March 13, 2007 after meeting with top officials of the Cabinet Cluster on National Security. She said she has "decided to step up all measures to enforce the law, preserve the atmosphere of peace and stability, and advance the ongoing peace talks between the Government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF)."

She ordered the AFP "to work closely with the established mechanisms of the peace process — the Joint Ceasefire Committees, the Ad Hoc Joint Action Group and the International Monitoring Team — to keep combatants in place; and increase vigilance against those intent at breaking the peace, at agitating the people, at pitting the Government against the MILF and communities against each other."

She said in her statement, "I have directed the DND-AFP to review and amend the current AFP guidelines on the ‘Primacy of the Peace Process,’ strictly enforce the amended Guidelines, and to adhere to the GRP-MILF Agreement on the Cessation of Hostilities signed in 1997 as well as its implementing Guidelines."

While affirming the tactical decisions of military field commanders, she enjoined them to be constantly aware of the strategic implications of tactical actions in the proximity of MILF areas." In a strongly worded statement, she ordered them "restraint in the use of artillery and aerial bombing in the conduct of military operations."

“Full coordination between the AFP and the International Monitoring Team (IMT) and the coordinating Committees on the Cessation of Hostilities (CCCH) of both sides shall be observed when necessary and called for by the situation. The security of IMT members, military or civilian, is of utmost important," the President said.

I guess, the fact that there is no escalation of violence, despite the reported movements of military troops and MILF forces not only in Basilan but in some parts of Central Mindanao as well, shows that both the government and the MILF are upholding the Primacy of the Peace Process by giving way to the existing ceasefire mechanisms to handle the unfortunate incident in Basilan.

The search for justice should continue side by side with the search for peace. Not one of these two should be relegated in favor of the other. Only then, can things be acceptable for everybody — families of victims, combatants, and civilians alike.

(“Fields of Hope” is Fr. Roberto C. Layson’s column for MindaViews, the opinion section of MindaNews. Father Layson is former parish priest of Pikit, North Cotabato and presently the coordinator of the Oblates of Mary Immaculates' Inter-Religious Dialogue. He is the 2004 Ninoy Aquino Fellow for public service.)