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‘If you want peace, prepare for war’

That was the slogan prominently displayed at the main assembly hall at the Moro Islamic Liberation Front’s headquarters called Camp Abubakar.

An aphorism from classical Rome (“Si vis pacem, para bellum”), it means that a nation or society is likely to be left in peace by its enemies if its military capacity to wage war is a deterrent enough—an idea that proved true during the Cold War’s arms race. The slogan speaks volumes of the MILF’s real thinking even with the peace talks: The Moro homeland will finally be left alone in peace when the government is confronted with an MILF that can really wage war.

In fact, in my interview then with the late MILF chairman Hashim Salamat, he explained that his organization’s strategy is not for a Maoist guerrilla war, but to match, battalion per battalion, the government’s military force—at which point government will have no choice but agree to an Islamic state in Mindanao. Ceasefire agreements during peace talks simply allow it to build up its forces. Indeed, the MILF force, which recently decimated an Army’s Special Forces platoon, is referred to as the 113th Base Command, already mimicking our Army’s organizational nomenclature.

I stayed at Camp Abubakar in Maguindanao for several days when I was correspondent for the Hong Kong-based magazine Far Eastern Economic Review. I still think the area, on a plateau with its idyllic fields, waterfalls and virgin forests, is one of the most beautiful places on earth. Such a colossal waste: even with the camp captured by government forces in 2000, the area is still deserted and will remain as such even for a century—because of the Muslim insurgency.

Perhaps thankful that the MILF chose me as the first ever journalist to visit Camp Abubakar and to interview its legendary chairman, I wrote a nearly puff piece on the MILF.

That article (“The Fire Next Time: Has Manila let the Moro movement go too far?) was written in March 1996—fifteen years ago.

The world has vastly changed since. Mao’s China has become the world’s most powerful capitalist country, there are 2 billion more people now, Saddam’s Iraq is now an American protectorate, typewriters have become museum artifacts—and we still have the Muslim insurgency that has made central Mindanao poorer every year, dragging the entire country down.

It is time to really take stock of things, and not just rely on another tagline to be conjured up by some advertising man—like “all-out justice”—to confront how our nation will address the twin insurgencies of the MILF and the Communist Party. We’re now the only country in Asia with such debilitating rebellions.

Based on the experiences of countries addressing insurgencies, there are only three models.

The Philippine model, we are familiar with: Occasionally launch military operations against these “lawless elements” while undertaking high-profile peace talks, and hope that the insurgents come to their senses and lay down their arms. Modernization and commercialization will overwhelm them, we are wishfully thinking.

But the only peace talks that succeeded were those undertaken by the dictator Marcos, after he threw 40 battalions against the Moro National Liberation Front for five years and asked Col. Moammar Gadhafi to arm-twist it to agree to an “autonomous region for Muslim Mindanao.” We obviously can’t ask Gadhafi—nor anybody remotely like him—now to help.  The Philippine model hasn’t worked out, with the MILF and the NPA simply regrouping and expanding their forces during peace talks.

The recent Nepalese model is Jose Ma. Sison’s Shangri-La: after continuous welga ng bayan general strikes and a decade of guerrilla war by Maoists, the feudal kingdom agreed to peace talks, which the Nepalese communists deftly manipulated to seize power in 2008. Like its ideological brothers in the Philippines, though, Nepalese communists have split into factions each after the other’s throats, and there is again political instability.

The Sri Lankan model would be Sison’s—and the MILF’s—nightmare. President Mahinda Rajapaksa ordered in 2007 an all-out war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, which had been waging for 26 years a guerrilla war demanding a separate state for the Tamil minority. Despite the international hue and cry against the government’s offensive by peace advocates and human rights organizations, the Sri Lankan army gave the Tamil Tigers no quarter, until its chief was killed early 2009, and the guerrilla force totally wiped out.

Early this year, a Sydney Morning Herald article, titled “With Tamil Tigers slain, booming Sri Lanka makes up for lost time,” reported: “Last year, the island’s economy grew a China-like 8 percent and is slated to expand at least that again this year, and outstrip it next year.”

What isn’t widely known though is that the Sri Lankan army won against the Tamils with China’s massive assistance, amounting to $1 billion in military and financial aid annually from 2005 to 2009, allowing it to increase its military budget by 40 percent and its army’s size by 70 percent. Too bad that President Aquino hasn’t exactly warmed up to China for us to request military aid from that emerging superpower, what with his saber-rattling over the Spratleys issue and his government’s bungling that resulted in the deaths of eight Chinese tourists.

I’m afraid there are just no other models for addressing insurgencies.