By Michael Vatikiotis
When the government of the Philippines signed a landmark comprehensive peace agreement with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) last March, the United States joined the world in applauding and congratulating the parties. The U.S. State Department said, “We encourage all parties to continue their efforts to ensure a future of peace, prosperity, and stability in the southern Philippines.”
One year on, the peace agreement is in jeopardy following the death of a sizable contingent of police commandos and MILF fighters in an operation to capture wanted terrorists that the United States possibly helped plan and execute under an agreement to cooperate in counter terrorism activities.
The events that unfolded in the village of Mamasapano on the southern island of Mindanao on January 25 have dealt a body blow to President Benigno Aquino and his efforts to bring peace to the region. The operation to capture two wanted terrorists, Zulkifli Abdhir (also known as Marwan) and Basit Usman, went badly wrong after a fire fight erupted between police commandos and fighters from both the MILF and a splinter group known as the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF).
Having received no advance notification of the raid, the Moro fighters assumed a breach of a long-standing ceasefire, and fought ferociously to defend their camp. The resulting bloodbath left 44 police commandos and 18 MILF fighters dead. Marwan was allegedly killed, his DNA later confirmed from a finger retrieved from the area.
A photograph in the Philippine media showed a helicopter with civilian markings at the site later in the day, with what looked like westerners in civilian clothes removing a stretcher. The U.S. government denied any involvement in the raid, but a just released Philippine Police board of inquiry report says that half a dozen Americans provided “real time information from the tactical command post.”
In the six weeks since the raid, accusations and recriminations have reverberated around Manila about how the raid was planned, why the Philippine army was not notified, and why the various ceasefire mechanisms could not be deployed to prevent the deadly counter attack.
The raid and its aftermath have shaken and seriously damaged Aquino’s administration – with questions centered on how much the president knew of the raid before it was executed. A follow-up military operation against the BIFF has reportedly killed hundreds and displaced more than 80,000 people.
The controversy has halted the review in the Philippine Congress of a draft law that must pass before the Bangsamoro peace agreement can be implemented. Although review of the draft Bangsamoro Basic Law is set to resume in Congress in April, few observers in Manila expect the law to pass before legislators break for a recess in June. Even if it does pass, the fear is that the law, which governs the high degree of autonomy granted to the Bangsamoro region, will be so diluted that the MILF will be forced to argue a breach of the agreement and threaten a return to armed struggle.
Although the Aquino administration has a lot of explaining to do in relation to the Mamasapano tragedy, there is no question that the president remains committed to the peace process. Aquino chose to devote the anniversary speech of the 1986 people’s power rebellion to explain why peace in Mindanao was so important for the Philippines. The MILF leadership affirmed in testimony in the Philippine Senate that it remains committed to peace and not coddling terrorists.
But in the wake of Mamasapano there is a breach of the trust that the past two decades of negotiations have established between the parties. The fact that the two wanted terrorists were allegedly hiding on the edge of MILF territory has revived suspicions. That this discovery was made in a period of heightened fears of the spread of violent extremism has not made it easier to calm or dispel these fears and suspicions. There is speculation that given fears about violent extremism in the region, there may be concern in Washington about how well an autonomous Bangsamoro entity would counter the spread of Islamic militancy.
Given Washington’s alleged involvement in and support for the Mamasapano operation, it would be helpful for the United States to more strongly re-state its support for the peace process, and especially for the autonomous future of the Bangsamoro. To be sure there will be concerns in the Philippines about U.S. interference in its domestic affairs. Ahead of next year’s Philippine presidential elections, the political environment is fraught with tension as individuals and parties jockey for power.
But given the avowed close security cooperation between the two countries in counter terrorist operations, and the sizable stake that the international community has in supporting the peace process with financial aid and expertise, it is incumbent on every friend and ally of the Philippines to show strong support for peace. The alternative is another long decade of war, thousands of deaths and tens of thousands of displaced people: a needless and tragic waste.
Mr. Michael Vatikiotis is Asia Regional Director of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, which serves as a member of the International Contact Group assisting the Government of the Philippines-Moro Islamic Liberation Front peace process. Follow him on twitter @JagoWriter.