November 06, 2008

Aftermath of MOA-AD scuttling

On a recently held National Interfaith Humanitarian Mission to Lanao del Norte, North Cotobato and Maguindanao, the meaning of the intractable, long-drawn out armed conflict in Muslim Mindanao, this time between government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), was made painfully clear to us in the forlorn faces of the evacuees.

The hunger, sickness and generalized misery; the listlessness, the yearning to go back to their farms and homes safely; the appeal for a return to normalcy, for an end to the military restrictions over their comings and goings – these images and plaints became etched in our minds and hearts as we went from one evacuation center to another.

The Mission participants from Manila and different parts of Mindanao were divided into three teams each time: one to distribute the always pitifully few relief goods the Mission had collected; another to undertake medical and psycho-social work among the sick and the traumatized, particularly the children; and the third to talk to the local leaders, including local government officials and imams.

Scores of victims of human rights abuses were interviewed: those wrongfully arrested, those beaten up because they were rebel suspects or so that they would point to the rebels/rebel sympathizers; those whose relatives had been killed or were injured in the course of the government’s drive to flush out the “rogue elements” of the MILF; those whose houses and other properties had been destroyed.

After the teams had tallied the numbers of patients treated, families given relief goods and victims of human rights violations attended to, we came to the sobering conclusion that what the Mission had achieved was a mere drop in the bucket compared to the overwhelming needs.

It was also sharply brought home to us that while relief efforts are a must, the solution to the humanitarian crises that accompany the government’s military campaigns against the rebels lay in addressing the underlying causes of the armed conflict; that is to say, the return of ancestral lands stolen from the Bangsa Moro and respect for their right to self-determination as a distinct people.

The legal and political brouhaha over the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD) between the Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP) and the MILF has resulted in the eruption of fresh hostilities between the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Bangsa Moro Islamic Forces, which in turn fanned the already raging anti-Moro biases. The Arroyo regime rode on the widespread Moro-bashing to drastically renege on its commitment to the MOA that its negotiating panel's initials had clearly signified.

Malacañang shifted from lauding the MOA-AD as a breakthrough in the peace negotiations to disowning and trashing it along with ordering renewed military offensives against the MILF.

Mrs. Arroyo also disbanded the GRP peace panel and announced that henceforth “disarmament, demobilization and rehabilitation” -- regarded by both the MILF and the communist-led National Democratic Front (NDF) as mere euphemisms for surrender -- would be government’s framework for all peace negotiations.

The Supreme Court decision on the MOA-AD declaring it unconstitutional and enjoining the Executive Department to desist from signing it; the seeming de-escalation of military offensives and the dispersal of MILF units; and the lack of prominence in the mass media of the plight of refugees – all these have placed the Moro people’s struggle once more in the back burner.

The Arroyo regime has acknowledged spending half a billion pesos in the highly publicized “pursuit operations” against MILF commanders blamed for atrocities in Central Mindanao. Unfortunately, apart from causing more civilian deaths, displacement and damage to property, the military has little to show for their effort.

Kalinaw Mindanao, a coalition of peace advocates, has decried the “disproportionate war” aimed at capturing or killing two MILF commanders at the expense of half-a-million internally displaced persons. The group says, “the government is barely providing relief services to evacuees and has seemingly turned over this responsibility to foreign aid agencies.”

The aftermath of government’s scuttling of the MOA-AD is continuing war and greater human suffering resulting from the insecure situation of displaced families and entire communities. They have been forced to virtually abandon their farms and homes. Their children cannot go to school as most of these serve as evacuation centers.

Then there is the constant fear of the Moros that they would be branded “terrorist” with the subsequent terrifying consequences.

The danger that the root causes fueling the armed conflict will again be papered over and the resort once more to the failed militarist solution is real. The Arroyo regime appears hell bent on obliterating whatever gains have been achieved in 11 years of negotiations with the MILF.

The impending impact of the global financial and economic crisis portends further economic hardships and greater misery for the Filipino people. But for those living in war-torn areas such as in Muslim Mindanao, the adverse effects are bound to be amplified by military offensives and consequent human rights and international humanitarian law violations.

As if to add insult to injury, there is strong evidence of growing US involvement in military campaigns and operations against the MILF, a revolutionary organization that is not even officially tagged by the US as a "foreign terrorist organization".

The longer the Arroyo regime tries to put off dealing with the issues of the Bangsa Moro's ancestral domain and right to self-determination, the more it will inflict suffering and misery on the Moro people, and the more they will be forced to fight back to survive. The time will come when the government will be forced to go back to the negotiating table and honor its own signature on the MOA-AD. #


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