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The crisis in Zamboanga

By Bong Austero | Sep. 17, 2013 at 12:01am
The crisis in Zamboanga City, which started last week when about 200 armed men belonging to the Moro National Liberation Front took over five barangays and declared their quest for an independent Moro state, acquired a personal dimension when I learned that a colleague’s son was among those held hostage and used as human shield by the MNLF.  The boy is in Zamboanga City to study for his college degree and was living in a dormitory in one of the five barangays.  He is barely 17 years old.  As a result, we are monitoring the Zamboanga crisis with a little more concern than most - we’re not just praying for a quick resolution to the standoff, we’re also praying for the safety of the hostages.  Above all else, we are praying for lasting peace in Mindanao.

Unfortunately, it seems we compose a minority.  Most just want the crisis to end already.  I’ve been in several discussions where most everyone present expressed annoyance over this latest interruption of our supposed march to a better Philippines.  I can understand why and how business and industry tend to view the crisis as a nuisance that needs to be dealt with quickly and drastically; Zamboanga is the sixth largest city in the country and is a major component of the Mindanao economy.  The city has been virtually shut down since last week and the losses to business on a daily basis is staggering.

I’ve met people who seem to think that the Aquino administration is not being decisive enough, that the situation should be dealt with in a more resolute manner; in other words,  government should storm the five barangays in Zamboanga City with guns blazing and kill all the insurgents in one sweep.  My default reaction to this kind of assertion is to tell the person to stop watching too many action movies.  That kind of conflict resolution is only achieved with any level of success in the movies of Bruce Willis and Sylvestre Stallone.  But, alas, there seem to be too many people who subscribe to the “end it now,whatever it takes” course of action despite the fact that there are just too many civilian lives who could potentially become collateral damage and the fact that there is actually a wider context to the conflict.  The Zamboanga crisis has its roots on the decades-long problems of Mindanao.

Anyone who is still thinking straight should then easily figure out that the Zamboanga crisis is not going to be resolved with a purely military solution.  Government troops may, by some stroke of luck, be able to end the current standoff in Zamboanga, but it will not guarantee an end to the crisis.  As what happened in Syria, a totalitarian approach to end an uprising can have disastrous long-term consequences.  A purely military solution  increases the probability of expanding the crisis to other places in Mindanao.  As it is, there are now speculations that other breakaway groups of the MNLF and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front are preparing to get into the act to achieve visibility and consequently invite participation into the ongoing peace negotiations between the Philippine government and the MILF.

While it may seem as if the 200 armed insurgents in Zamboanga are mere recalcitrant renegades who are virtually a lost command, we must recognize that they are not isolated ideologically and religiously.  Nur Misuari and his men may have already been marginalized politically by the current government, but when push comes to shove, the larger context of the Mindanao struggle involves all muslims in Mindanao.  The protracted war in Mindanao has continued precisely because we have not been as successful in pursuing a more comprehensive approach to the problems.

Of course politics and the presence of too many breakaway groups have further muddled the issues but let is not forget that the problem in Mindanao is first of all economic and social.  Unless we are able to address the problems of poverty, discrimination, inequity, injustice, etc, crises such as the current one in Zamboanga will continue to recur.  Lest people have forgotten, the current crisis in Zamboanga is actually a repeat of a similar caper pulled by Nur Misuari in 2001 when he was ousted as chairman of the MNLF.  Back then, MNLF forces held hostage residents of several barangays until they were allowed to escape.

So while our soldiers are preparing to launch an annihilatory solution to the crisis in Zamboanga, let’s all remember that while we may be annoyed by having to witness the crisis in the comfort of our living rooms, millions of people in Mindanao actually live the crisis.  The crisis is complicated and there is more to it than meets the eye so let’s all be patient as the government search for more ways to bring permanent and lasting peace in Mindanao.
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