Breaking the peace in Sulu and Zamboanga

ZAMBOANGA CITY (MindaNews/ 22 Sept) — In August, the panji  (flag) of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) was hoisted at the SarangBangun Center where MNLF founding chair Nurullaji“Nur” Misuari was holding office just near the Masjid Tulay or the Tulay Grand Mosque in Jolo, Sulu. It is the same flag that MNLF followers from across the province of Sulu wanted to hoist in Zamboanga City, after the same purported activity: the peace rally.

“Jolo Mayor Hussin Amin did not issue a permit to hold a peace rally to the MNLF in Jolo,” Hji. Fazlur-Rahman Abdulla, Executive Director of the Sulu Area Coordinating Center and member of the Sulu Ulama Council, said in an interview. The rally would have taken place afternoon of August 20 at Masjid Tulay in Sulu’s capital town. The Ulama were against the use of the mosque as a platform to air political gripes.

“We are tired of the war that the MNLF has been waging,” Abdulla said. “The Tausug is maluha na (in tearful anguish), with the trauma of the wars.  You know, my family and I were once IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons) in 1974. In 2001, the MNLF declared that the Government (of the Philippines) has no sincerity.  Nur Misuari was losing his control over the ARMM (Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao) so between August to September that year nag-atake na sila (they already attacked Jolo).  Pagod na ang Tausug sa giyera (The Tausug is tired of war),” Abdulla added.

It is for these reasons that Sulu Gov. Abdusakur ‘Totoh’ Tan II did not allow MNLF forces to gather in Sulu.  “The MNLF could not push through because there was no support from the Tausugs.  We are simply tired of war.  Things were different in 1974 because the MNLF was fully supported in the uprising then.  When they attacked the (Army) Brigade in 2001 things changed.  People suffered from trauma, for a cause they did not really want.  Perceptions of the Tausug on war also changed,” Abdullah stressed.

Mayor Amin, on the other hand, challenged the MNLF: “Why hold a peace rally when there is no war?  There is no foreseen danger.  There is no need to hold a peace rally unless all sectors are involved.”

Amin and Vice-Gov. Abdusakur Tan met with the members of the Provincial Peace and Order Council (PPOC) and studiedthe movement of the MNLF in Sulu,especially on August 20 (the date of the supposed rally) to August 24 (United Nations Day).

On July 29, the MNLF command under Ustadz Habier Malik marched to Lampaya in Talipao, some 15 kilometers from the headquarters of the Marine Battalion Landing Team (MBLT) 2.  Malik, along with about a thousand armed followers, was seeking passage through Talipao to Jolo, but the Marines blocked the MNLF’s entry through a five-hour non-violent stand-off.

Asked how they prevented what could have triggered an armed conflict, Lt. Col. Romulo Qumado II, MBLT2 Commanding Officer, said: “The key was genuine relations plus discernment and prudence.  Between and among warriors is the word of honor.  Honor is valuable to them as this equates with martabat.  It is a culture-fit approach to peace-building and is like no other.”

Recalling the incident, Quemado said  the troops blocked the MNLF forces and told them not to bring their firearms.  “They complied in a straight line like kindergarten kids.  Probably hid (their firearms) or let their (armed) pieces in another route.  But they broke through, challenging my authority and the (Philippine) flag I represent.  The Marines and the MNLF kept the peace for the community.”

Col. Jose Johriel Cenabre, commander of the Joint Task Force Sulu and 2nd Philippine Marine Brigade said the main body of the MNLF was in that portion in Talipao.  “I’m very glad that he (Quemado) was able to handle that incident effectively.  All was focused towards achieving and winning the peace. Well, not all of his decisions were according to the book, because it was people-centric—this is our campaign here—than threat-based.  You know, in dealing with situations like that, we need to be flexible in dealing with human lives, in dealing with humanity,” Cenabre said.

Days later, the MNLF gradually moved, in batches, to Zamboanga City, the regional economic hub not only for the Zamboanga Peninsula but also for Basilan, Sulu, and Tawi-Tawi—three of ARMM’s provinces.

A relative of one of the MNLF members who arrived in Zamboanga two weeks ago from mid-August to early September disclosed that they arrived in small numbers on board motorized bancas. Others arrived months earlier and already settled in Zamboanga and embedded with the locals in various barangays.

At around 1 a.m. on Monday, September 9, the final group of MNLF combatants entered the Zamboanga Peninsula area via the seawaters of Mariki, where Philippine Navy Seals fought them off to defend the coastal waters.  The encounter left Navy Seal, PO3 Jose Audrey Bañares, dead.

Local Governments Secretary Mar Roxas admitted that this was a failure of intelligence, but in a separate interview, Zamboanga City Mayor Maria Isabelle “Beng” Climacosaid she “will not call that as a failure of (military) intelligence, if only to honor that Navy Seal (Bañares) who to his last breath defended Zamboanga’s seawaters.”

Climaco said she has spoken with both Misuari and Malik.  The MNLF chair has denied knowledge of his lead combat commander’s plans and offensive operations. And while the MNLF has been stating that they only wanted to hold a peace rally in Zamboanga, Climaco stressed that the MNLF “never asked for a permit to hold a rally” which is a legal requisite in the conduct of public assemblies as provided by law.

However, Malik, interviewed live on broadcast from his command post in Zamboanga (exact location unknown) in Sta. Barbara on September 10, declared: “Dapat mapag-usapan ang kapayapaan (Peace must be discussed).” The MNLF wanted to raise their panji (flag) at the Zamboanga City Hall—to the full protest of Zamboangueños.

Malik’s demands are deeply grounded.  The issues he presented last week are the very issues he raised in February 2007, when he held hostage then peace panel representative, then Brig. Gen. Benjamin Dolorfino (now retired from military service) and 24 other persons including then Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (OPAPP) Undersecretary Ramon Santos in Camp Bitanag, Panamao, Sulu.

Malik demanded then that the Tripartite Review on the implementation of the 1996 Final Peace Agreement between the Philippine government and MNLF be set (the schedule for the review was postponed several times) so the MNLF can be listened to, at least, through Misuari.

One of the hostages, Carol Latorre, said in a phone interview that they were all released through peaceful dialogue and Malik’s men, all heavily armed, set free the peace panel team led by the AFP general.

There are, however, outstanding issues and differences between the Philippine Government and the MNLF in the implementation of the 1976 Tripoli Agreement and the 1996 final peace accord.  There are three remaining issues both parties are still reviewing – the MNLF arguing these have yet to be implemented, the government saying otherwise. Whatever their disagreements may be, both parties concur that the 1996 Final Peace Agreement did not solve the problems of the Bangsamoro people, and in effect, did not lead to sustainable peace in Mindanao.

The demands presented by the MNLF however are beyond the decision-making capacity of Mayor Climaco. On September 13, President Benigno Simeon Aquino III took control as the crisis was elevated to Level 4, a state when the management of an existing emergency situation is elevated to the national leadership.

Civic groups appealed “to immediately effect a humanitarian ceasefire, to allow the release of civilian hostages, especially the children, the elderly, the persons with disabilities, the curing of the sick, and the burying of the dead.”  Led by Fr. Angel Calvo, Prof. Ali Yacub, Rev. Paulino Ersando, and Mr. Nulhamdo Cegales,  the Interreligious Solidarity for Peace specifically called for the silencing of the guns and saving of lives.

The paradox is, the peace in Sulu and Zamboanga has been disturbed by the MNLF that seeks peace, and was responded to by the force of law that sought peace as the end-state when government troops staged an assault, enforcing a graduated constriction strategy in their joint operations.

Arguments and informal deliberations continue to vary because  perspectives vary.  As of this writing, body counts are not even revealed, and the extent of economic, structural and cultural damage are immeasurable. The Navy Seal was perhaps the first casualty in this war.  But the late US Senator Hiram Johnson said, “The first casualty in war is truth.”

Sadly, even the white flag cannot be waved without the truth.

(This piece was first published in the Sept. 16 issue of MindaNews’ weekly newsmagazine, OUR Mindanao. Frencie L. Carreon is a Zamboanga-based journalist and a Ph.D. Candidate for Peace and Conflict Studies (Peace Journalism) at The University of Sydney, Australia)