Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Commentary: Mindanao a laboratory again?

From the Thought Leaders section of Rappler (May 25): Mindanao a laboratory again? (by Patricio N, Abinales)

As President Duterte expands his targets of opportunity, it is once again Mindanao – yes, his beloved Mindanao – that will be the laboratory of this 21st-century version of Marcos’ war

The irony about President Rodrigo Duterte declaring martial law in the entire island of Mindanao is that he is not coming out as the decisive leader who will give Islamic terrorism and communist extortion their comeuppance. It is, in fact, the opposite.

It is an admission of how little Duterte has done to eradicate the root causes of these two acts of terrorism.

The debut of another variety of Islamic terrorism is a major slap in the President’s face. The local (and still evolving) chapter of ISIS signifies that all those pledges Duterte made to reverse the setbacks to the peace process resulting from his predecessor’s (mis)adventure in Tukanalipao, Mamapasano, is turning out to be empty promises.

There is virtually no movement in the crafting of the necessary mechanics for the efficient functioning of the Bangsamoro Entity (or whatever new name it will assume) once it is established.

The peace talks are in suspended animation since the new panel was organized (perhaps the regime is more concerned with bringing the communists to the fold), while Moro civil society leaders and management staff of government offices involved in the training of Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) guerrillas in the art of daily governance (from filling up forms to monitoring revenues and expenses, etc.) are increasingly being frustrated by the lack of guidance from the top.

Ever the pragmatic organization that it is, the MILF has not commented on the government’s clumsiness, making just enough of a presence so that it would not be forgotten. It has not disbanded its armed force and has kept control over its territory, made possible in part by the continuing friendly relationship its field commanders have with their counterparts in the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP).

But the MILF is also a wounded organization, with the defection of many of its battle-scarred fighters to Umbra Kato’s more sectarian Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters. It is still unable to prevent its forces from being caught in the never ending rido that afflicts the ummah. It was only a matter of time that another breakaway faction of the MILF would make itself felt. The new actor, the Maute group, is showing some panache by latching to the cash-rich ISIS. (READ: What you should know about the Maute Group)

What about the AFP?
The AFP was like a deer caught in the headlights. It has units with designated security sectors to oversee, but it is clear that the Army’s 1st Infantry Division, whose mission is the security in Marawi and the environs, knew nothing of the Maute group’s presence in the area. When the Maute group started its assaults, it was the initiative of local commanders that stopped the attacks.

Neither is the line between field and headquarters clear: government spokespersons in Manila were minimizing the impact of the clashes, telling journalists and their audience not to believe what they see on social media. The latter, however, were sharing news from cellphone texts, photos, and videos sent by friends and kin in Marawi.

DISPLACED. Evacuees pass through a checkpoint in Iligan City on May 24, 2017. File photo by Bobby Lagsa/Rappler

The most derisory spin was given by Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana. What happened was not a lapse in military intelligence that allowed the Maute Group to enter Marawi. It was a failure “to appreciate” whatever the local spies gave the intelligence unit of the 1st Infantry Division. Lorenzana did not say who failed “to appreciate” the intelligence reports. Keeping it vague exonerates Camp Aguinaldo, and, by extension, MalacaƱang.

Thus, for over 12 hours no one knew anything definite, including – I suspect – the President and his team in MalacaƱang (a side question: what kind of information was conveyed to the caretaker committee led by Budget Secretary Benjamin Diokno from Marawi and what did Diokno, in turn, tell the President?). The result is a proclamation that was hastily written and improperly formatted (Can a proclamation by the President of the Philippines be notarized with the statement: “Done in the Russian Federation”? Duterte thinks so).

Stoking the flame

More bothering is that the proclamation exaggerates the threat of the Maute Group and thus allows its author to endow the police and the military the carte blanche to do anything to individuals, groups, and communities. Muslim and Christian.

Duterte stoked the flame by warning that the police and army can shoot anyone who violates the curfew in the 4 Moro provinces where freedom of movement was curtailed. In his press conference upon arriving from Moscow, the President even suggested that he might just expand martial law to cover the entire country and for an extended period. His justification: droga, of course.

The panic over Marawi has not only turned into an anxiety over a failure to bring peace and continue the progress in Mindanao, but also into a disquiet that the promise he anchored his presidency on – the war on drugs – will never be fulfilled.

What makes things doubly scarier now is that President Duterte has concocted this bizarre alliance that has the Maute Group linked to drug syndicates, human rights groups and their European Union patrons, and the US State Department.

As the President expands his targets of opportunity and makes it easier for them to be attacked, thanks to his martial law declaration, it is once again Mindanao – yes, his beloved Mindanao – that will be the laboratory of this 21st-century version of Ferdinand Marcos’ war.

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