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Politicos hampering troops’ fighting chances in Zambo

Vice President Jojo Binay has trained twice in hostage negotiating. So he was most qualified to parley with Moro renegades to free dozens of Zamboanga citizens held captive for a week. Yet he seemed to have overlooked the first step in such bargaining. That is, to consult his superior on what he safely can concede to the other side, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF).

And so the truce that Binay forged Friday midnight between MNLF founder Nur Misuari and Defense Sec. Voltaire Gazmin ended before it could start. Shooting intensified at daybreak as soldiers encircled Misuari’s 180 or so MNLF loyalists holed up in five seaside villages. If not managing to escape, villagers were killed in the crossfire. Binay flew back to Manila from Zamboanga muttering that his efforts failed because of Noynoy Aquino. “It’s a pity” his Commander-in-Chief supposedly nixed the terms he had forged for the hostages’ liberty.

Apparently, though, Binay had announced his brokering to the press before informing Aquino, who was also in Zamboanga Friday. “What ceasefire?” Gazmin raised his eyebrows when queried by reporters. He said he never agreed to stop firing until Misuari’s men did so first. His twofold orders from the President were clear: free the hostages; capture the abductors.

Apparently, too, Binay had not cleared with Aquino the message to the abductors. He wouldn’t say what exactly he had guaranteed them. But Gazmin gave a hint when he said, “The President would never grant the armed men safe passage out of there ... They started this, not us.”

It was unclear too if Binay, to begin with, had been authorized to negotiate with Misuari. They have known each other since the ‘60s at the University of the Philippines-Diliman, where both were campus activists. Graduating from law school, Binay went underground fighting the Marcos dictatorship. Misuari, after teaching political science and serving as constitutional convention delegate, formed the separatist MNLF. At one point, they joined forces in Mindanao.

College ties hardly suffice in crisis solving, however. Besides, Misuari may have been the wrong person to talk with. For, he was in Jolo Island, two hours across the sea from the Zamboanga City hostaging. Before Binay came in with the ceasefire idea, Misuari was disowning the 180 heavily armed abductors.

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In Zamboanga MNLF lawyer-spokesman Emmanuel Fontanilla babbled that they were protesting Malacañang’s mistreatment of Misuari all these years. Rejecting the city mayor’s overtures to talk, he said the President no less should call the MNLF leader: “Only ‘Maas (Elder Brother) Nur’ can break the impasse.” But the Maas, through personal spokesman (Protestant minister) Absalom Cerveza in Jolo, insisted he had nothing to do with the standoff. So he would not help solve it. “Talk to Habier Malik,” Cerveza said.

In hostage takings, negotiators do have to talk with the leader on the ground. The Zamboanga renegades are under the command of Malik, Misuari’s trusted lieutenant. Malacañang aides maintain that Malik had ambushed Army patrols in Sulu-Basilan at least thrice in the past five years. “He won’t do anything without Misuari’s go-signal,” said presidential adviser on the peace process Teresita Deles. Misuari, through Malik’s band, allegedly is trying to sabotage the ongoing government peace talks with the MNLF’s bigger breakaway Moro Islamic Liberation Front.

Whether Binay was right to talk with Misuari, or to talk at all, did not sit well with Netizens. He was criticized in blogs and social media as an “epal,” Tagalog slang for interloper-grandstander. Supposedly he went to Zamboanga to upstage Interior Sec. Mar Roxas, who was directing the city mayor’s efforts from the sideline. Binay and Roxas had contested the VP post in 2010, and are likely to slug it out for the Presidency in 2016. The Binay camp says he intervened to save lives, as Roxas was preventing the convening of the national crisis committee, headed by Executive Secretary Jojo Ochoa, also Roxas’s political rival.

As if the politicking was not enough, further hampering the military operation to rescue the hostages was lack of food. Wives and parents of the soldiers complained to newsrooms over the weekend that they were fighting on empty stomachs. Reporters in Zamboanga attested that soldiers begged them for water, with some offering G.I.-ration cigarettes in exchange. Video footages showed how, during lulls in the shooting, fighting men would crowd corner stores to buy biscuits.

Such reports infuriate citizens nationwide. The troops’ meal shortage meant two things. The commanders were too dense to gauge that food was their one big advantage over the besieged abductors. Or, the Army had no money for logistics and supplies. Either way, citizens blamed it on the pork barrel scam, the target of protests for weeks. Had senators and congressmen not been pocketing billions of pesos in “pork” allocations, the military would have had more money to train officers and equip foot soldiers.

Recently a Marine general spoke his mind out on the “pork” issue. Soldiers are dying because, he said, the government has not addressed the social ills on which the communist and Moro insurgencies thrive. Lawmakers have stolen the funds for social development. The general was the wrong person to say it, and so was censured. But what he said is true: Greedy politicos are the root of the country’s woes.

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