Monday, March 23, 2015

Confronting the ugly face of war in Maguindanao

For how long will the AFP pursue in Maguindanao its “all-out offensive” or the “war on terror” sequel to the tragic Oplan Exodus carried out in Mamasapano – against the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters and a group of “terrorist bombers” led by Basit Usman? 
Declared by AFP chief Gen. Gregorio Pio Catapang Jr. on Feb. 25, the war was supposed to last for only 10 days.
Last week I was in Maguindanao, with a Peace and Humanitarian Mission initiated by Mindanao human rights and peace advocacy groups, and that was the question asked by vexed refugees in the evacuation centers we visited. Their numbers were rising fast; food was getting scarce, health and sanitation conditions were worsening.
On March 11 the ARMM reported 14,517 families or 72,585 persons from 11 municipalities had been displaced by the war. (Two days earlier the figures were 11,000 families, 57,000 individuals). A week later the numbers jumped to 24,714 families or 123,000 people from 14 municipalities.
Last Tuesday 10 peace networks converging on the call All-out Peace! expressed “gravest concern” over the adverse effects of the war on the people.  They declared alarm over the use of artillery shelling and air strikes with bombs reportedly dropping near civilian homes. 
“We categorically state that a humanitarian crisis is already staring us in the face as an effect of the prolonged military action,” said the peace advocates.  
 The concern is valid, given the number of state forces deployed and their method of warfare.
Deployed were composite units of the 6th Infantry Division: 1st and 2nd Mechanized Battalions; 8th Marine Battalion Landing Team; 33rd and 45th Infantry Battalions; 601st, 602nd and 603rd Infantry Brigades; Scout Rangers, Special Forces, plus the ARMM-PNP. 
Their objective: to cripple if not to decimate the BIFF (300-400 fighters, per AFP estimate).
Can they succeed?  Or will this phase of the US “war on terror” in Mindanao — begun in 2002 purportedly against the Abu Sayyaf —  go on indeterminately?  After 14 years, with so much blood spilled and so much anguish and rage stirred up,  the end is nowhere in sight.
Ground and aerial attacks, using 81-milimeter mortars and 105-mm howitzers, OV10 Bronco bombers and helicopter gunships, began on Feb. 27 in four municipalities: Salbo, Pagatin (Datu Saudi), Mamasapano, and Sharif Aguak.  The ground and aerial bombings have terrorized and driven more and more people to flee their communities, ending up in cramped evacuation centers. 
 Our mission participants witnessed and experienced the effects of mortar shelling, though from a relatively safe distance.
Near noon on March 11, as our psychosocial and documentation teams did their work in Barangay Dapiawan, Datu Saudi town, mortar shelling and sporadic gunfire exchanges erupted not too far from where we stood. The loud explosions impelled some mission members and refugees to drop to the ground. Others instinctively ran inside the makeshift tents.  The children visibly cringed with fear.
 Two hours later, we moved to BarangayMadia in the same municipality. We found elements of the 2nd Mechanized Battalion deployed there. The psychosocial activity for children and adults, conducted at the multipurpose hall of a schoolhouse serving as evacuation center, was disrupted again – this time by the arrival of three 6x6 trucks loaded with Marines. They unloaded equipment in the vacant lot between the barangay hall and the schoolhouse. 
Unmindful of us closely watching them – and without notifying barangay chair Eidris Sindatok, whom we were interviewing at the time – the soldiers set up two 81-mm mortar launching pads aimed at an unspecified target. (We learned later that the mortars were fired the following morning).
These episodes show how a peaceful community is turned into a war zone through the unilateral actions and arbitrary occupation by government forces.  Moreover, artillery and mortar firing against an enemy force employing mobile or guerrilla tactics endangers, and in certain documented instances, has inflicted physical harm and property damages on the civilians.
 Back to the question: can the AFP attain its objective in this war?
 Consider the view of Rommel C. Banlaoi, executive director of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research.  Interviewed by the International New York Times, he averred:
 “It is impossible to eliminate the BIFF through military means because the source of their rebellion is the political, economic and social injustices done to the communities where they operate. The military can neutralize some of their members, but they cannot eliminate the group.”
Banlaoi estimates the BIFF has 1,000-plus fighters and 10,000 civilian sympathizers. Whether he has solid basis for his estimates is beside the point. What must be noted is he evidently doesn’t share the AFP’s categorization of the BIFF as a “terrorist” group.
 And for diligent introspection – which the times necessitate – the P-Noy government and the AFP ought to mull over what the Philippine Military Academy’s Sinaglahi Class (2015) valedictorian had to say, in his graduation speech last Sunday, about waging war.
 Citing the occasion as an “appropriate time for the Filipino people to remember those who sacrificed so much for our freedom,” 2nd Lt. Arwi Martinez stated: 
Our interest in pursuing freedom in our country does not necessarily entail that every problem has a military solution… History would remind us, the most costly mistake of strategy came not from restraint but from the willingness to rush into military action without thinking about the immediate and long-term consequences of waging war.” 
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