August 09, 2007

Tell that to the Marines

No matter how successful the government may be in conjuring a picture of improved peace and order conditions in Mindanao, the truth is bound to emerge sooner or later, as in the latest Basilan incident.

Is the ceasefire with the Moro Islamic Liberation Movement (MILF) holding or is government poised to go on an all-out offensive against it for the debacle suffered by the Philippine Marines last July 10 in an 8-hour gun battle with the Moro rebels? Is the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) to blame for the beheading of the dead Marines and is the government merely undertaking necessary police action to arrest 130 suspects it has identified?

First of all, what really happened? The MILF has been consistent in its version: the Marines entered an MILF-controlled territory in Tipo-tipo, Basilan. Failing to coordinate with them in accordance with the ceasefire agreement, the AFP wittingly or unwittingly provoked an armed attack by MILF forces. The Moro rebel group quickly owned up to the killing of 23 Marines and to suffering four fatalities on its side. They denied that their forces mutilated the corpses of ten of the 14 men that the AFP acknowledged to have been killed in action.

The MILF called for an investigation of the incident under the auspices of the joint GRP-MILF Coordinating Committee for the Cessation of Hostilities and by international human rights organizations. Nonetheless, they refused to surrender their members whom the government claimed were the perpetrators despite several ultimatums including the supposed “D-day” last July 31 for the planned AFP assault against them.

The military top brass insists the soldiers were attacked by the MILF treacherously and without provocation. The official claim is that, if at all, the Marines’ only sin was failure to coordinate their entry into MILF territory (the AFP initially denied that Tipo-tipo was MILF territory) while on a mission to find and rescue the kidnapped Italian priest, Fr. Giancarlo Bossi. Malacanang says the MILF could have complained of the incursion under existing mechanisms in order to avert a clash but instead it staged the ambush on the hapless Marines in gross violation of the ceasefire agreement.

Whatever triggered the Basilan encounter and no matter how hard the government tries to withhold and conceal critical facts and circumstances, certain undeniable truths emerge.

Truth #1: The ASG is far from eradicated, five years after Balikatan 02-1, the landmark RP-US military exercise held under the Visiting Forces Agreement that involved anywhere from 1,650 to 2,665 US troops, 150 of them Special Forces, and 3,800 Filipino soldiers. Then Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes stated that the purpose of the operation was to eliminate the Abu Sayyaf and free a Filipino nurse and an American missionary couple taken hostage in May 2001.

There was a huge controversy over the entry and presence of US forces in combat zones in Basilan or anywhere in Philippine territory even for military exercises. An International Solidarity Mission subsequently unearthed evidence that US troops were in fact involved in combat operations while purportedly training Philippine troops for counter-terrorist operations. Objections from many quarters, including the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy, were overcome by public clamor to wipe out the ASG, a job the AFP appeared incapable of doing on its own.

Truth #2: The Abu Sayyaf is still in Basilan and elsewhere in Mindanao and the Philippines. And so are the US Special Forces!

The Abu Sayyaf, as well as so-called "lost commands" of the MILF & Moro National Liberation Front, are to the Philippine government/Arroyo regime as Al Qaeda is to the US government/Bush regime -- a convenient excuse for military presence and activity in certain sensitive areas, but ultimately a source of embarrassment not only because they appear impervious to all-out military and police operations but also because of their revealing histories.

The ASG was a creation of the Philippine military and police and, like Al Qaeda, was trained and used by the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) against Soviet forces in Afghanistan. Like the Al Qaeda, it is anybody’s guess whether Abu Sayyaf had gone “out of control” of their creators, or the latter are not in fact still their handlers.

US troops have not left the Philippines since Balikatan 02-1 wrapped up in mid-July 2002. Aside from a continuing series of joint military exercises not only in Mindanao but in the Visayas and Luzon as well, US forces have remained under various pretexts such as "humanitarian operations/missions"-- road-building and other public works, disaster relief and rescue, medical missions, etc., all in continuing violation of the Philippine Constitution.

Truth #3: Government troops are poised to launch a massive assault in Basilan and other parts of Western Mindanao under the guise of conducting "police operations" to arrest the perpetrators of the beheading/mutilation of the dead Marines.

The Arroyo administration has gone to great lengths to make it appear that the beheadings are a "police problem", obscuring the fact that they are a byproduct of an armed encounter with the MILF. But backing up this "police operation" in a remote Basilan barangay with over 5,000 troops, betrays the fact that this is a massive military campaign with still undisclosed military objectives.

Even now, with several postponements and only a few skirmishes, the lives and livelihood of more than 4,000 Basilan residents have been disrupted with the threatened destruction of their meager belongings and sources of livelihood as well being caught in the crossfire or of being mistaken for “terrorists” themselves.

Truth #4: Despite repeated government announcements that formal peace talks between GRP and MILF are about to resume and a peace agreement is in the offing, prospects for a just and lasting peace in Mindanao are no better now than when armed hostilities flared up decades ago.

Two peace agreements with the MNLF -- the 1976 Tripoli Agreement and the 1996 Final Peace Accord -- have evidently failed to bring peace to Mindanao and uplift the lives of the Moro people. This is because the root cause of the Moro problem -- recognition of and upholding their right to self determination, including their right to their lost ancestral lands -- has not been addressed. The Arroyo regime has instead been engaged in a game of cooptation utilizing economic aid from the US, Japan, the European Union and others combined with the threat of “terrorist” labeling by the US and Philippine governments with all the dire consequences that entails.

Truth #5: The AFP continues to throw its troops into battle with defective arms, ammunition and equipment and is saddled with bungled operations. The AFP has not explained why the Marines ventured into MILF territory without informing the MILF in accordance with a standing ceasefire agreement. Recall also the Lamitan, Basilan hospital incident where the Abu Sayyaf inexplicably managed to slip out of a supposedly tight AFP cordon with even some of their hostages in tow.

Periodic debacles such as the Tipo-tipo battle revive and give credence to charges of deeply entrenched corruption in high places in both the AFP and Defense Department.

Worse, Mrs. Arroyo and her generals are covering up for their bungling and criminal disregard for the safety and well-being of foot soldiers and the civilian population, by utilizing anti-Muslim chauvinism and warmongering and pretending to render justice for the senselessly slain Marines in order to carry out the regime's military campaigns.#


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