MALAYBALAY CITY (MindaNews/07 November) – When President Benigno S. Aquino III promised posthaste to give “all-out justice” to the 19 soldiers slain in an encounter with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in Al Barka, Basilan, he must have intended it as a spin to assuage two opposing camps – those who are calling for an all-out war against the MILF and those who oppose such call. He had no inkling that his kneejerk response, though meant as a balancing act, would later on create a policy dilemma in relation to the peace process with the MILF.

Aquino’s “all-out justice” slogan has given the military a reason to go after MILF commander Dan Laksaw Asnawi, a suspect in the July 2007 beheadings of Marines, also in Al Barka, an incident that a multipartite independent fact-finding body blamed on the Abu Sayyaf. The military labeled Asnawi as a leader of “lawless elements” but the MILF insisted he is one of their best commanders and made it clear they would not surrender him to face the country’s justice system.

That the military seems obsessed to get Asnawi is understandable. After all, he put the Marines and later the Army Special Forces to shame. But will pursuing him be a wise move, that is, will it not only worsen the precarious state of the talks?

In situations where the fate of policies such as those related to the peace talks are at stake the civil branch of government has to assert its constitutional supremacy. Unfortunately for the President, he could not order the military to stand down in Basilan without courting disenchantment and getting blamed for demoralization, real or imagined.

The “all-out justice” line appears to be the only thing holding back the pro-war camp from further agitation. Aquino is using it to calm down the calls for blood. Yet how can he achieve what he wanted if the MILF, for reasons of its own, takes a hard-line stance with regard to Asnawi? If the military insists on launching operations to capture – or kill – Asnawi, and the MILF defends him to the end, what are the prospects for the peace process? Not to wish a doomsday scenario, but a mishandling of the aftermath of Al Barka by either party through unilateral actions may spell the beginning of the end.

At this stage where provocateurs and saboteurs are ostensibly working to derail the peace process the best option is still to iron things out at the negotiating table. Government in particular should keep in mind certain things it can’t force on the MILF, for instance, making it submit to the state’s justice system.

It (government) may reason out that rendering justice to the 19 soldiers – granting that dying in an encounter as a combatant can be called an injustice – is part of its sworn duty. Statesmanship, however, demands the capacity to weigh things in a dispassionate manner and determine their comparative importance vis-à-vis a bigger political purpose.

In the Al Barka incident, the cry for justice for the slain soldiers – or put in another way, the cry for vengeance – may be justified from a purely legal point of view. After all, the MILF, or any other non-state armed group for that matter, is always illegal and its acts of rebellion are criminal. Despite this the government has opted to negotiate with them, and has even welcomed the participation of a foreign government as facilitator, the way the Marcos administration allowed Libya to intercede in talks with Nur Misuari’s Moro National Liberation Front for the sake of peace.

Now, will Aquino set aside his problematic “all-out justice” policy for the sake of a bigger political purpose called peace in Mindanao? (MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. H. Marcos C. Mordeno can be reached at