Was it, indeed, a victory for President Aquino’s “all-out justice” campaign in Mindanao? That’s how the Armed Forces of the Philippines is characterizing the fall of a rebel stronghold in Zamboanga Sibugay province a few days ago. Described as a former camp of a dissolved faction of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the site is said to have very thick vegetation riddled with land mines, and is twice the size of Camp Aguinaldo. It was overrun by government troops following the Aquino administration’s announced rejection of “all-out war” against the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (which had caused the death of 19 Special Forces soldiers in Al-Barka, Basilan on Oct. 18), embracing instead what it calls a campaign of “all-out justice” against “lawless elements” in the troubled southern region.
Of some 100 rebels in the camp, 27 reportedly died in the ground skirmishes and air strikes the AFP launched. For the military, the “all-out justice” campaign has notched its first big achievement.
“Yes, (this is a victory) for us,” declared Col. Arnulfo Marcelo Burgos Jr., head of the AFP’s public affairs office. “It’s major because this is a big loss to them. Even if we are to say that they are not completely decimated, they have broken up. The most important thing here is we liberated the place. We have established a hold in that former stronghold of lawless elements.”
But, we are compelled to ask, who are these “lawless elements,” really? When President Aquino announced that the government, in pursuit of “all-out justice,” was launching an offensive against “lawless elements,” it provided no clarification as to who specifically these elements were, and what constituted their lawlessness. The bandit group Abu Sayyaf is obviously beyond the pale of law, and so it is a legitimate target. Ditto with the still-at-large Ameril Umra Kato, head of the breakaway MILF faction Bangsamoro Islamic Liberation Fighters. How about the MILF, which has been denounced by many quarters for its supposed treachery in violating an ongoing ceasefire with the government? Malacaang was mum on whether the rebel group also fell under the rubric. How, then, must “lawless elements” be identified and eliminated, given that these armed Muslim groups tend to melt and morph into each other in the magic-realist jungles of Mindanao? Secretary Ricky Carandang was the epitome of insight in his answer: “We still don’t know what’s going to happen down the road.”
That incoherence, deliberate or otherwise, is most unfortunate, because it dilutes the force and precision of the AFP’s campaign, and could conceivably put more lives at risk both in the battlefield and in the civilian populations affected by the fighting. The lamentable byproduct of the assault that led to the fall of the rebel camp in Zamboanga Sibugay has been the displacement of some 30,000 residents of the area. And yet, at the end of it all, and despite Burgos’ assurance that “[b]efore we conduct an operation, it should be thorough, carefully planned; it should be a deliberate, intelligence-driven and focused operation; we have to be precise regarding our target,” the AFP was nowhere near certain whether one of the ostensible targets of its offensive, the alleged kidnapping and extortion leader Waning Abdusalam, had survived the onslaught. “He’s probably dead,” was all Burgos could manage, adding helpfully: “It’s likely he’s not just wounded, but dead… because of the bloodstains everywhere, an indication of the intense fighting.”
At this point, perhaps declaring “victory,” no matter how early and indistinct, is the military’s way of salving its wounds following the painful licking it got at the hands of the MILF. Any incremental success in the battlefield can restore hope, boost morale and soothe slighted pride among the troops. Still, the pronouncement seems rather premature. No outlaws have been captured yet, there are tens of thousands of new evacuees to be tended to, the question of the MILF’s breach of the ceasefire agreement is now sidelined by a focus on an amorphous species of “lawless elements” (the assault in Zamboanga Sibugay was far from the MILF lair in Al-Barka, Basilan where government troops had their bloodiest setback) and, with the outbreak in fresh violence, prospects for peace in Mindanao are the most tenuous they’ve been in years. However way you look at it, that doesn’t sound like victory―yet.
More so if we bring to mind that our real, ultimate goal in Mindanao is lasting peace.
(Editorial, Philippine Daily Inquirer)
(Asia News Network)