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Where the Mamasapano massacre really started

In 2000, under then President Joseph Estrada’s orders, Armed Forces Chief of Staff Gen. Angelo Reyes launched a two-month campaign against the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). In July of that year, Philippine Marines overran its main camp and headquarters, Abubakr al Siddique, in Maguindanao.

The camp was also where Hashim Salamat had lived for already a decade. With his camp in ruins and the Marines in hot pursuit of him, Salamat, then 68 years old, had to be constantly on the run. That took a toll on his health. He became sickly. In July 2003, the MILF’s legendary political, military, and religious leader died of a heart attack. The MILF’s boast that it had an army of 120,000 guerillas with impregnable camps proved to be an empty one.

Fast forward to President Benigno S. Aquino’s rise to power. In August 2011, he flew to Japan for a dramatic, much-publicized meeting with the new MILF chairman, Ibrahim Murad, and his core leaders in a hotel near Narita Airport, Japan.

It was billed as his “historic move” to end the insurgency. He was also trying to beat a deadline to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

In contrast, not even the then-feared Libyan strongman Moamar Gadafi could arm-twist Marcos with an oil embargo to go to Tripoli for the 1976 peace pact with the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF).

Aquino’s meeting with the MILF breathed new life to the Islamic insurgents, and its recruits swelled in a few months’ time to double its force that had been reduced to just 5,000 full-time guerrillas as a result of Estrada’s campaign. Murad, who was competing with vice-chairman Ghazali Jaafar for chairmanship of the Jihad Central Committee, cemented his leadership over the MILF.

Newspaper’s banner story on the Tokyo meeting in 2011. It was his incompetence, it turns out, that gave them hope.

A year later, Aquino agreed to a “Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro “ with the MILF, and then in March 2014, to a “Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro,” which would in essence create a substate under the MILF’s rule. Aquino’s Administration in that agreement’s “Annex on Normalization” even recognized six MILF camps, including Camp Abubakar. (See my column, “Aquino pact restores, strengthens MILF camps,” Jan 30, 2014.)

Left “in peace” by our military, the MILF has grown in both troop strength and military hardware. Its checkpoints in Maguindanao even bear huge signs that say “Bangsamoro Government.”

By 2015, it could very easily mobilize troops to rout a 400-man Special Action Force commando, and massacre 44 of them after encircling them in a killing field in Mamasapano, near two of the MILF’s camps.

Following is my column on Aug 18, 2011, more than three years ago when I was still with the Philippine Daily Inquirer, on Aquino’s “historic” meeting with the MILF chief:

Republic downgraded in Aquino-MILF meet
“MILF: NOY gave us hope,” this paper’s banner headline said recently, referring to President Aquino’s August 5 meeting in a Narita airport travelers’ hotel with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front’s chairman Al Haj Murad Ebrahim.

Mr. Aquino indeed gave the insurgents a lot of hope—to make the MILF the core of a sovereign state. The meeting, in effect, put the MILF on the same category as the Philippine Republic—sovereign entities.

The MILF’s statement on the meeting even refers to Mr. Aquino only as “President Aquino,” and nowhere in the statement is he referred to as President of the Republic of the Philippines. The Japanese Foreign Ministry could not but follow the MILF’s framing, saying in its congratulatory note: “Japan strongly expects that both parties will continue sincere talks.”

Our government has become just another “party” in this conflict, no longer a state protecting its sovereignty.

One is dumbfounded at how our 113-year-old Republic was downgraded in this episode to the level of an insurgent group that has at most 5,000 mostly part-time guerrillas that can operate only in a small territory in Central Mindanao, and which has been responsible for the deaths of at least 10,000 Filipino soldiers and civilians.

Probably thinking that a meeting with the MILF head would be an accomplishment he could boast of in his July 25 State of the Nation Address, Mr. Aquino, the MILF statement disclosed, asked for the meeting in June. “Anywhere in the Philippines,” he told the MILF.

Surprised by the invitation, but realizing it was for the Sona and, therefore, Mr. Aquino was on a tight deadline, the MILF sensed a tremendous political opportunity. It dilly-dallied, and then demanded that the government course the invitation through the Malaysian official “facilitator” for the peace talks. Then it told Aquino: Either a meeting outside the country or no meeting. Choose among Japan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, or the United Kingdom as venue. It is amazing how an insurgent group sets the place and the time at its convenience for a meeting with the President.

The MILF demanded a “series of consultations” to agree where the meeting would be. The days spent for this and for a very surprised Japanese government to make the necessary preparations derailed the calculation for the “historic meeting” to make it to the Sona in July.

The MILF gloated over its political victory in having the meeting in Japan, declaring in its statement: “The meeting between the two leaders in a third-party country host is a significant political milestone in the MILF’s quest for Bangsamoro right to self-determination.”

The MILF was so delirious with joy that Mr. Aquino committed such a blunder, it even went on to further humble the President by saying: “On the part of the MILF chairman, his acceptance of the invitation illustrates a high level of statesmanship.” An unelected rebel chieftain proved himself a statesman by agreeing to meet the representative of 94 million Filipinos?

It has always been the fervent hope of any insurgent group for its leader to meet with the head of the state it is fighting, since such a meeting moves it closer in the public mind and in global perception to the status of a sovereign, with its members becoming what are called “state actors.”

Aquino’s mother Cory had more sense in that she met in 1986 with the MNLF chief Nur Misuari in Sulu—in our country, in sharp contrast to our President slipping through the backdoor to a foreign land to comply with the MILF’s demand.

Cory’s meeting was also a gesture of solidarity with and gratitude to the MNLF, which after all, dealt blows to the dictatorship, rather than, as the MILF described the Aquino-Murad encounter, a “historic meeting between two leaders.”

Marcos had more sense in that the highest-ranking officer he sent to negotiate, and even sign the peace treaty with the MNLF was a defense department undersecretary.

In Narita, the MILF faced a President and six Cabinet secretaries. (What in the world were Secretaries Florencio Abad and Cesar Purisima doing there? If not for the publicity, to offer money to the MILF?)

Cory had more sense in making sure that no photograph of her meeting with Misuari was circulated. Now every MILF fighter would be proudly carrying a photo of Murad and Aquino smiling, to taunt our soldiers.

The road to hell, it seems, is not only paved with good intentions, but littered with the mess of publicity-seeking incompetents.