The cost of war, the price of peace

BREAKTHROUGH - Elfren S. Cruz - The Philippine Star

We join the Filipino people in honouring the 44 PNP SAF heroes who were the casualties in an encounter in Mindanao a week ago. This is not the first time that we have witnessed stories of gallantry and heroism by soldiers and policemen in the second largest island in the Philippines.

I have no intention to join the ongoing frenzy of speculations and gossip mongering that is currently filling the air space in media. I am willing to wait for the results of the different investigations to determine the accountabilities – on both sides – for this tragic event.

In a press conference held in Malaysia yesterday, there were two statements which I sincerely hope the public and the investigating bodies will give utmost attention.

The first statement was by Miriam Coronel-Ferrer, chair of the Peace Panel who said that we must not go back to the situation in the seventies regarding the armed struggle in Mindanao. The second statement was by former Secretary Senen Bacani, a member of the Peace Panel who said that the persons who were responsible for the tragic event “know who he or she is and should not wait for the investigation but should already accept their accountability.” As he said “ deep in their hearts he or she know who they are.”

Chair Coronel-Ferrer is reminding the country of the consequence of a failure to find a peaceful solution to the Mindanao issue. That was best described by the former Senator Ninoy Aquino in a speech he gave almost 35 years ago – May 12, 1981 – when the Philippines was still suffering from more than eight years of Marcos martial law. This was the opening statement of his speech:

“ Over the last eight years as a result of the so-called Muslim Mini-War in the Philippines, more than a hundred thousand Filipino Muslims have lost their lives, over 250,000 have come as refugees in the neighboring state of Malaysia, and more than one million have been displaced and rendered homeless. On the other side, according to President Marcos himself about 10,000 to 11,000 Filipino soldiers have been killed over the last eight years AS A RESULT OF THE BATTLE in THE Southern Philippines....The Philippine government under President Marcos calls the Muslim fighters as rebels, he calls them outlaws, he calls them insurrectionists, and he calls them secessionists or far worst – traitors to the Philippines. The Muslims on the other hand see themselves as patriots, as holy warriors, birthright of self determination from infidel attacks. It is the most unfortunate that Filipinos are fighting Filipinos today.”

Before martial law, sectarian violence was already on the wane with very few armed incidents reported. However, one of the reasons Marcos offered for justifying martial law was armed conflict in Mindanao. Three weeks after declaring martial law, Marcos announced that he was committing an entire division of troops to “annihilate” the outlaws in Mindanao. By 1977, even Marcos realized the high cost of his actions and agreed to the Tripoli Agreement supposedly paving the way for peace. But after a few months, the truce was again broken.

The peace process was restarted by President Fidel Ramos seventeen years ago. Unfortunately, when Erap Estrada became president, he again declared all out war. When the main MILF camp was captured by Filipino soldiers, Estrada went to the site and publicly ate roasted pig knowing that the Muslims consider eating pork as a sin. I suppose he thought he was on the set of one of his movies. Again the fighting escalated.

The sacrifice of the 44 PNP SAF officers and men will forever remain part of the glorious history of the Philippine National Police. The media commentators and politicians who are now demanding revenge and crying for blood will soon move on to other topics like the perennial EDSA traffic, celebrity scandals and the next Pacquiao fight.

But for those who want to understand the tragic situation in Mindanao, the first step is to understand the historical context of the struggle. While it is true that thousands of soldiers and policemen have been the casualties of these wars, it should also be understood that it is the Muslim civilians who have suffered the most in terms of being killed or being displaced.

This struggle between the Christians and the Muslims have lasted for 450 years. Islam was introduced to the Philippines around 200 years before the coming of the Spaniards in 1521. In fact, there is a report that says Rajah Suleiman, the ruler of Manila, when the Spaniards came was a Muslim.

When the Spaniards came,  they conducted a vigorous campaign against the Muslims mainly because in their own homeland – Spain – there had been centuries of fighting between the Christian Spaniards and the Muslim Moors who occupied Spain for many centuries. The Spanish rulers were able to conquer and Christianize most of the Philippines except for the Muslim held areas in Mindanao which they never conquered.

When the Americans came, they also tried to subdue the Muslim communities with the intention of integrating them into the Philippine Christian community. In spite of their superior arms, the Americans failed to subdue the Muslim insurgents. Then in 1928, the American administration started moving Christian settlers from Luzon and the Visayas to Mindanao.

In his 1982 speech, Ninoy Aquino graphically described the situation: “ In a very real sense, the Christian Filipino and the Muslim Filipino do belong to different worlds. Each is oriented towards a different wider community from which they drew their religion, their law, their values and their sense of history. The Christians went to the Vatican, the Filipino Muslim make pilgrimage to Makkah (Mecca), thus is the history of the two peoples which so fired the conflagration in the southern Philippines. The question then, can we solve this problem? What could be a solution?”

Anyone who says that continuing the war in the south, in order to “annihilate” the other side, is living in a fantasy world. Even the Americans, with their superior arms,  learned that lesson in Vietnam and Afghanistan.

For those who say that the path to peace is through more bloodshed needs to have their heart and mind examined. It is easy for those who are not in the zones of conflict to sit in their air conditioned offices and studios and pontificate while others do the bleeding and the suffering.

The Bangsamoro Basic Law is the only rational path to peace that we have right now. It does not matter whose legacy this will be. But for the sake of future generations of Filipinos, we must give peace a chance.

In search of accountabilities

Senen Bacani, a very sober and highly respected member of the Peace Panel, publicly said that those who are responsible on BOTH sides for the tragedy know in their hearts who they are and should admit responsibility without waiting for the conclusion of the investigation. Perhaps, it was my imagination but I felt that there was a a measure of controlled anguish and even outrage as Bacani uttered those words.

While the MILF must be held accountable for the incident, the Inquiry Board must also determine the accountability on the government  side of those in command of the failed operations. For example, P-Noy said that the PNP SAF was given clear instructions to coordinate with the military. Why then was the military not informed?

Military history is full of stories of how the ordinary soldiers are the victims of miscommunication and botched operations by generals in search of personal glory. One such tragedy was made into a poem “ The Charge of the Light Brigade.”

“ Not tho’ the soldier knew; Someone had blundered; Theirs not to make reply; Theirs not to reason why; Theirs but to do and die; Into the Valley of Death rode the six hundred.”

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