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After the Zamboanga hostage-taking

Sep. 17, 2013 at 12:01am
At the outset, let me be clear where I stand on what is happening in Zamboanga City which, as I write this column, is on its eighth day. For me, this is clearly a criminal incident, a case principally of hostage-taking by a faction of the Moro National Liberation Front that has resulted in many deaths, disrupted the lives of more than 60,000 people, and destabilized Zamboanga Hermosa -- one of the most beautiful cities of this country.

There is no justification for this. More particularly, using civilians, especially children, as human shields is completely unacceptable. To quote my colleagues in the Ateneo de Zamboanga, in a statement they issued to condemn the attack on their city, “this is a crime against humanity.”

Those who are responsible for the Zamboanga City hostage-taking should be brought to justice. The so-called “Cabatangan formula”, which was used in a similar incident involving also the MNLF in 2001, should be abandoned. That formula, named after the place in Zamboanga City where the incident happened, gave the MNLF hostage-takers safe conduct passes so lives could be saved. As Mindanews, the reliable Mindanao-based online media site, has reported: “The ‘Cabatangan formula’ has been put forward as a solution to the ongoing crisis but the political cost of invoking that formula is making officials rather wary.” According to Mindanews, Zamboanga City Mayor isabelle Climaco believes that allowing the current perpetrators to once again get away without being held accountable will only repeat history. Clearly the good Mayor, who has performed exceptionally well in this crisis, has taken to heart what George Santayana once said: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Taking a hard stand against the hostage-takers and their leaders (at the right time, I will write about Nur Misuari, whom I have always liked and continue to respect even as I disagree with his words and actions) is not equal to supporting an all-out armed attack against them. That is not an option we can afford. First, an indiscriminate attack will only result in unacceptable civilian casualties. I cannot imagine any scenario where such an attack will not result in significant collateral damage. Second, killing many of the hostage-takers will only result in their glorification, at least in their communities, and will mean a new generation of fighters will replace them. Hence, I favor a humanitarian ceasefire without conditions to prevent further escalation. Alternatively, the current calibrated military response might work.

I have no doubt that the crisis in Zamboanga City will eventually be resolved. But we must make sure that it does not happen again. Criminally prosecuting the perpetrators and the masterminds are important but not enough. We must go to the roots of the problem, to the conditions that resulted in the current situation. The key is to change the facts on the ground - the politics, the economics, and yes the governance of this part of the country. And for that, we must return to the peace process that is the heart of both the problem and the solution.

On the side of the MNLF, there is an allegation that the Philippine government has abandoned the 1996 Final Peace Agreement between the Government of the Philippines (GPH) and the MNLF, and that this is tantamount to a declaration of war, a renewal of hostilities.

On the side of the government, Secretary Teresita Quintos-Deles of the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process has categorically denied this. What the government wants completed is the almost six-year Tripartite Review Process (involving the government, the MNLF, and the Organization of Islamic Countries) on the implementation of the 1996 agreement, to pave the way for the it’s full implementation.  According to Secretary Deles, the Aquino administration has continuously engaged the MNLF through this Review Process as well as through peace and development programs under the PAMANA program

Some analysts have speculated that the motivation for the Zamboanga City hostage-taking is to scuttle the peace negotiations between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) which is now on its last stages, with marathon talks happening in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Ironically, what is happening in Zamboanga City makes it even more imperative for the GPH-MILF peace negotiations to be successfully concluded. The outcome of the negotiations must however include ways and means to reconcile the Bangsamoro Basic Law, which is intended to implement the new agreement, with the 1996 Final Peace Agreement. More importantly, the government must take an integrated and inclusive approach in negotiating peace. As someone who was involved, on the government side, in the peace negotiations with the MNLF (as Legal Affairs Undersecretary of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, I cleared the natural resources and land concessions we made to the MNLF in 1996 and the MILF (in the last months of the Arroyo administration, I agreed to join the GPH panel to help in the transition to the Aquino government), I was always uncomfortable with the dichotomy between the peace processes we have pursued in Mindanao. I have come to the conclusion that the bilateral approach to negotiations must be replaced by a quad or quintet approach so that everyone is brought to the same table, including the MNLF and other groups with legitimate interests (Lumads or indigenous peoples of Mindanao  for example as well as local governments of affected areas).

Recently, the Aquino government sought to involve the MNLF in the creation of the Bangsamoro by asking for nominations for the Transition Commission but it seemed that overture was rejected. In the future, other such attempts should continue to be made. Only through such an integrated and inclusive approach can comprehensive peace be truly achieved and made permanent. Otherwise, the hostage-taking in Zamboanga City will happen again and, to paraphrase George Santayana, because we did not learn our lessons well, we will repeat the past. And next time, we will not be as lucky and hundreds more would die and the displacement even larger.

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