MALAYBALAY CITY (MindaNews/28 October) – The most unfortunate thing that has resulted from the government’s military debacle in Al-Barka Basilan is that it has been exploited to the hilt by interest groups that wish to see the peace process between government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front fall flat on its face. They’re everywhere – in Congress, in the military, in the local government units, and yes, in media. Worse, despite his pronouncements that government will pursue the peace talks President Aquino has shown signs he may eventually yield to the irresponsible, raucous calls for an all-out war.

I’m referring to Aquino’s statement that while he’s averse to an all-out war he would pursue “all-out justice” for the soldiers slain in Basilan. Offhand, this may sound harmless vis-à-vis the peace process. But few have noticed that the phrase is a judgment call. It suggests that Aquino has come to the conclusion that the MILF was at fault in Al-Barka and so the full force of the law must be applied on those who figured in the encounter.

Considering the shaky state of the talks and the uneven presentation of sides in media reports, the President should have been more circumspect. A single word or phrase uttered without caution can serve as the proverbial tiny spark that may cause a prairie fire. What if the whole thing was an offshoot of incompetence on the part of the unit commander who sent those soldiers to their death? What if the soldiers were deployed precisely to provoke the rebels and not to pursue “lawless elements”, in order to justify military actions meant to further inflame the situation? What if, from a strict military viewpoint, it was a legitimate encounter and not an act of treachery as claimed?

There are so many “what ifs” waiting for answers that Aquino should have withheld any and all judgment before all the facts – obtained through an independent investigation – are in.

The “all-out justice” slogan is nothing more than a way to mollify sectors that are seeking retribution for the slain soldiers. It makes the President look serious in pushing the peace process regardless of what has happened in Al-Barka. At the same time, however, it serves as green light for the military to undertake punitive actions against the rebel unit that humiliated them.

There’s a problem though. Can government convince the MILF to cooperate and submit their men to the state’s justice system? The MILF has insisted that they were attacked and so had to defend themselves, refuting claims by the military that they were going after “lawless elements” headed by Laksaw Dan Asnawi, who happens to be a base commander of the MILF. Asnawi, a suspect in the July 2007 beheading of Marines, also in Al-Barka, was arrested on Nov. 7, 2009 in Zamboanga City but escaped a month later. An investigation into the incident found that the culprits were not the MILF but the Abu Sayyaf.

This poses yet another problem. Since the probe showed that Abu Sayyaf members were responsible for the beheadings the MILF is unlikely to surrender Asnawi, whom they have acknowledged as their base commander in Basilan. The reason is simple: Asnawi is with the MILF not with the Abu Sayyaf. Nor will the rebels agree to surrender their men who engaged the soldiers on Oct. 18. As far as they are concerned, it was a legitimate act of self-defense. Now, what will the military police do in this situation?

What will the President do if he realizes that he has talked too soon and promised too much? (MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. H. Marcos C. Mordeno can be reached at [email protected])