Mindanao: War or peace?

By Val G. Abelgas

IN 1965, The Byrds recorded a song called “Turn!Turn!Turn! (To Everything There is a Season) that was an instant hit because it was released at the height of the Vietnam War when militants all over the world were crying for peace.

The song, which was originally written by Pete Seeger in 1959, was actually an almost word-for-word musical interpretation of the Book of Ecclesiastes, Chapter 3, A Time for Everything, that says:

1.     To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:

2.     A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, a time to reap that which is planted;

3.     A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;

4.     A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;

5.     A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;

6.     A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;

7.     A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;

8.     A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.

The wordings were rearranged a bit, and Seeger added the phrase in the end that says: “a time for peace, I swear it’s not too late.”

The popular song comes to mind because of the renewed debates over whether the government should launch an all-out war against the Muslim rebels following a series of attacks by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in Mindanao that have resulted in the death of 44 persons, many of them military and police troopers.

Some lawmakers, led by Senators Panfilo Lacson and Jinggoy Estrada, have called on the government to wage an all-out war against the MILF rebels in the wake of the ceasefire violations, but President Benigno S. Aquino III insists that while the military should go after the “lawless elements” who instigated the attacks, the government must not abandon the ongoing peace negotiations.

Lacson and Estrada said 40 years of negotiations with the separatists had achieved nothing while government soldiers continue to die in Mindanao.

“Peace in Mindanao cannot be achieved unless a tactical victory is attained by the Armed Forces of the Philippines,” said Lacson, the Senate’s defense committee chairman. “It is time we untied the hands of our soldiers and authorized them to fight the MILF on equal terms—and not handicapped by the so-called peace talks characterized by treachery and deceit.”

Estrada, Senate president pro tempore, made the same call and demanded that the MILF leadership surrender the rebels responsible for the death of the 19 soldiers before the peace talks with them could resume.

“As the government has re-initiated a policy of peaceful and diplomatic negotiations, the other side has shown modest interest in attaining long-lasting peace, especially considering their latest show of aggression where 23 of our soldiers and three policemen have died,” Estrada said.

Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile, a former defense secretary, said the government should suspend the peace talks if the MILF will not surrender their fighters behind the killing of the troops. “What peace talks are we talking about when they are engaging us in combat?” he said.

Aquino on Friday had instructed the military that that there would be no offensive operation against those responsible for the killings in Al-Barka, Basilan province. The next day, however, he turned around a bit and ordered military operations against the “lawless elements” in areas where the attacks were launched. This was after reports of demoralization in the military surfaced because of the presidential inaction, giving the perpetrators time to flee the areas.

Aquino said the state was determined to run after all lawless elements, especially the Abu Sayyaf group, but not the MILF, with whom the government was honoring a ceasefire agreement. The statement came despite the admission by the MILF that they were responsible for the attacks, which they said was in retaliation for military actions in the areas that they control.

Aquino is tiptoeing on dangerous grounds here. He has to do his best to keep the peace talks going because he has promised to bring peace to Mindanao as his administration’s legacy, and yet he has to appease the soldiers who have lost a number of their comrades in what they described as treacherous attacks by the rebels. He has to prevent the clashes from exploding into a full-blown war, and at the same time he has to keep the government in a position of strength in the peace negotiations. He wants to bring peace, but he has to stop short of being called a wimp for not standing up to the rebels.

As an aftermath of Aquino’s hesitancy to mount an offensive against the MILF rebels, reports have been circulating in military camps that a coup may be mounted against him by angry elements of the military.

I have always advocated for lasting peace in Mindanao, but at the rate things are going, Lacson and Estrada may have a point in saying that peace talks have only led to failure, and will continue to fail until the military has achieved tactical victory in Mindanao.

For 40 years, the government has sought peace with the Muslim rebels. Many thought peace was at hand when the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) under Chairman Nur Misuari signed the Tripoli Agreement in 1976 in Libya that was moderated by the late Col. Moammar Gaddafi. The agreement granted autonomy to Central Mindanao in what is now known as the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao.

But the peace was short-lived as an MNLF faction, led by Hashim Salamat, rose up in arms again in 1978 under the name Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). The government has since initiated peace talks with both the MNLF and the MILF, but none has come close to a lasting agreement that would be acceptable to both the Bangsa Moro people and the rest of the population.

The Arroyo administration tried to sneak in a Memorandum of Agreement on Ancetral Domain (MOA-AD) in 2008, but was stopped by the Supreme Court because the proposed accord was obviously unconstitutional because it surrendered sovereignty over that region.

Even if the Aquino administration is able to find common ground with the MILF group under Al Haj Murad Ibrahim, there is no certainty that it would assure lasting peace in Mindanao because there are many more groups that have their own version of peace – the Umbra Kato faction of the MILF, which is now known as the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Movement (BIFM), the MNLF under Misuari, the terrorist Abu Sayyaf, and who knows what other rebel group would arise in the future.

It happened in 1978, what would make it different now? In 1978, there was only the Salamat faction to contend with. Now, there are three outside of the Ibrahim-led MILF. The Mindanao situation has gotten more complicated with three different groups seeking a Bangsamoro entity in various forms. The MILF wants a substate, the MNLF a strengthened autonomy, and the Umbra Kato-led BIFM, secession. The Abu Sayyaf wants nothing but mayhem.

After several attempts to resolve the Mindanao dispute, the nagging problem remains. Aquino has vowed to bring lasting peace to Mindanao before his term ends, but with both the MNLF and the MILF holding separate peace talks with the government, and the BIFM threatening to reignite an armed conflict, the region may continue to be Aquino’s biggest headache and the biggest stumbling block to the country’s full economic development.

How do you appease the Bangsamoro people without angering the rest of the Filipino people? How do you allow a Bangsamoro land without surrendering sovereignty?

John Stuart Mill, an English philosopher, once said: “War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things. The decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling that thinks nothing is worth a war is much worse. The person who has nothing for which he is willing to fight, nothing that is more important than his own personal safety, is a miserable creature and has no chance of being free unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself.”

Mindanao needs peace to fully develop to its potential, and peace is always preferred over war. But as the Book of Ecclesiastes and the song of The Byrds say, “There is a time for war and a time for peace.”

Unless President Aquino is willing to give up sovereignty over Mindanao, which is a foolish thing to do, he may only have his peace if he follows the philosophy of General Dwight Eisenhower who said: “We are going to have peace even if we have to fight for it.”


One Response to Mindanao: War or peace?

  1. Indeed a very profound insight in your analysis of the Mindanao situation! Let’s just hope and pray to God that Pres. Aquino will be guided accordingly in his handling of this delicate problem.

    Posting the youtube video of the song! See below:

    The Byrds – Turn! Turn! Turn!

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