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Aquino rejected truce offers, prolonged crisis

Second of Two Parts

On its 19th day today, the Zamboanga crisis, which resulted in the death of over a hundred people and untold suffering to 100,000 residents, could have been resolved much earlier if not for President Aquino’s pigheaded “surrender-or-die” mentality.

On the fifth day of the crisis, on September 13, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) fighters released Catholic priest Michael Ufana, one of its hostages, timed when Aquino arrived in Zamboanga.

MNLF Commander Malik (in desert camouflage): Dead or alive, a winner in the Zamboanga crisis

MNLF Commander Malik (in desert camouflage): Dead or alive, a winner in the Zamboanga crisis

Fr. Ufana would disclose later that the MNLF released him to deliver the message to the President that they would release all hostages if they were given safe passage out of Zamboanga.

That the offer was serious, and that it was the official MNLF stance, was demonstrated by the fact that the insurgents’ chairman Nur Misuari the next day made the offer through Vice President Jejomar Binay. The two had been friends during their UP college days in the late 1960s, a fact that encouraged Misuari to make the offer through Binay.

Aquino and his officials flatly rejected the offer, with Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin arrogantly telling the Vice President: “Tell them to lay down their arms and we’ll talk.” Gazmin couldn’t have been ignorant of that old saying well known among our military with combat experience in the Mindanao that a Moro fighter would give up everything except his arms.

Worse, and shamefully for a priest, Zamboanga archdiocese administrator Monsignor Crisologo Manongas echoed Gazmin’s belligerence when Ufana told him of the offer:

“They should surrender first, then talk later. We agree to the President’s position.” Coming from a Catholic priest, that injected a dangerous religious element to the crisis.

But Aquino who obviously enjoyed, at least for ten days, playing the role of a commander in the frontlines, wanted the “enemy” crushed and would have nothing of the MNLF’s formula for ending the crisis.

However, the granting of safe passage is nearly a standard procedure in hostage situations, as this prevents the hostage-takers from feeling trapped that they would massacre the hostages and die in the firefight.

More importantly, it gives the authorities the opportunity to prepare for the new arena of combat, which they can meticulously prepare for, to the disadvantage of the hostage-takers.

For instance, when four Palestinian Liberation Front (PLF) fighters hijacked in 1985 the cruise ship Achille Lauro off Egypt, they demanded safe conduct to Tunisia in exchange for releasing their hostages. After the hostages were released, they were allowed to board an Egyptian plane to fly them to Tunis. On route though, the plane was intercepted by US jet fighters and forced to land in Sicily, where the hostage takers were captured.

In the Zamboanga siege, it wouldn’t have required brilliant military strategy to get the MNLF fighters to release their hostages and allow them to leave Zamboanga by pump-boats provided by their comrades—and then have the Navy interdict them at sea on their way to Sulu.

But even if it did not capture the MNLF raiders, the government could claim that despite their raid on Zamboanga, it is still offering peace to the MNLF, and their fighters’ safe passage was its gesture of goodwill.

There is an important reason though why the granting of safe passage to the MNLF fighters would have been an appropriate response to the crisis. Officials of both the MNLF and the government claimed that the insurgents were in Zamboanga neither to attack it nor take hostages.

The MNLF claimed that they went to Zamboanga City merely to hold a peaceful rally—as they did in Davao City a few months back—to express its protest against the government’s agreements with its rival MILF. It claimed that its fighters had no choice but fight back when the military harassed them.

The government in effect had a similar explanation in its claim that many of the MNLF fighters were merely told by their superiors to go to Zamboanga to participate in a rally. The military claimed that when they found out that the real plan was to lay siege on Zamboanga, they had no choice but to follow their commanders’ orders and fight.

While the truth may be somewhere in between, the safe-passage formula would have provided a face-saving reason for the MNLF fighters to march out of Zamboanga.

But no, we have a commander-in-chief who even taunted the Muslim fighters: “You might want to assess if your life is still valuable, and it’s not yet too late to bring an end to this,” Aquino said September 21.

The MNLF would likely be decimated in the next few days, and Aquino will be claiming total victory. But at such a terrible, steep cost to peace in Mindanao. Aquino’s hard-line stance in Zamboanga has slammed the door to any peace talks with the MNLF.

Instead of being portrayed as a band of marauding Moros invading a peaceful Christian area, the 200 odd MNLF fighters fending off four infantry and Scout Ranger battalions, a dozen armored personnel carriers and tanks, and three helicopter gunships for nearly three weeks have entered the realm of Moro martial lore as heroic “mujahideens” (holy warriors).

MNLF propaganda in fact has focused on claiming that its men were asking to leave Zamboanga but that the military wanted them to surrender or be killed instead, so that they have heroically fought back. That will certainly rouse Moros’ ire and rally to the MNLF cause. Our military itself has predicted “vengeance” attacks by the MNLF, including terrorist bombings in the cities, in other parts of Mindanao.

Rather than a gang of hostage-takers who have killed 12 soldiers and two officers, the MNLF fighters have earned the respect even of our soldiers on the ground, I was told.

The Zamboanga commander, Habier Malik, is becoming an MNLF hero that even Amina Rasul, a respected commentator on Muslim affairs, warned in a television interview that if Malik is killed, “he becomes a mujahideen martyr” who would inspire more Moro warriors to fight the government. On the other hand, if Malik escapes the military dragnet, he would be catapulted to the pantheon of Moro legendary warriors, inspiring the MNLF fighters. Dead or alive in Zamboanga, Malik and the MNLF win.

Some Muslims sympathetic to the MNLF are even rejoicing that at last another leader—Malik—has emerged to replace the aging Misuari. Malik would have the qualifications to lead the MNLF. Not only is he a capable military commander, but he is also a Muslim cleric and a scholar who had his Islamic education in the King Saud University in Saudi Arabia in the 1970s.

Even a former Air Force officer, Nick Sotelo, who is with a group of former and active militarymen who call themselves “Defenders of Philippine Sovereignty” wrote in the group’s website:

“The measly band of 200 MNLF fighters I would say has balls of steel knowing that they will be martyred when coming into a hornet’s nest. They may be the perceived enemy, but I salute them for standing up to their principles, however flawed they may seem to our eyes. They who have nothing to lose, are to be feared the most!”

After the Zamboanga siege, the MNLF itself now has nothing to lose.