Philippines' Mindanao Dilemma: Aquino, the Mamasapano Tragedy, and the Future of the Peace Process

02/18/2015 04:23 pm ET | Updated Apr 16, 2015

Emotions are running high. There are even talks of a possible coup d'état against the government. Benigno "Pinoy" Aquino, who has managed to maintain relatively high approval ratings almost five years into office, is now confronting a growing call for his resignation. Even if he survives what some local analysts describe as Aquino's "greatest political crisis" yet, his approval ratings might not. Sensing growing public pressure, Aquino's henchmen have contradicted each other in one statement after the other, trying to pass the buck. The whole peace process in the southern island of Mindanao is now under question. So what went wrong?

After years of progressively encouraging peace negotiations between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the country was jolted by a tragic turn of events when 44 members of the elite Special Action Force (SAF) from the Philippine National Police were brutally massacred on January 25. The tragedy was an outcome of a day-long encounter between the SAF commandos, who were in pursuit of two suspected terrorists (i.e., Zulkifli bin Hir alias "Marwan" and his alleged local associate, Abdul Basit "Usman"), and a cabal of insurgent groups stationed in the area under their control.

The exact circumstances of the encounter are yet to be investigated and confirmed by an independent, impartial panel of experts. The Philippine Senate has commenced its own inquiry into what is dubbed as the "Mamasapano Massacre", trying to ensure accountability on the part of the executive branch as well as the MILF leadership. But one thing is for sure: There is massive outrage and anxiety on both sides of the fence. Daily, there is a flurry of speculation on who should be blamed for the tragedy. There is growing skepticism as to whether a lasting peace can be achieved in the war-torn Mindanao. As for the family of the victims and the broader Filipino populace, they just want to find out the truth -- and ensure justice is upheld.

Ahead of the 2016 presidential elections, there has also been an overlap between political cycles and security crises: All leading prospective presidential candidates in 2016 are beginning to chip in, either trying to establish culpability on the part of executive officials, especially if they are in the legislature, or, alternatively, are seeking to distance themselves from the crisis, especially if they are currently part of the administration.

The country is on the verge of losing a historic opportunity to lay down the foundations of a sustained peace process in Mindanao, unless Filipino leaders as well as their counterparts in the MILF make a concerted effort to address the political fallout of the tragedy in Mamasapano. The enactment of the "Bangsamoro Basic Law", paving the way for the establishment of an autonomous self-governing entity in Muslim-majority regions of Mindanao, is the first crucial step in a journey of thousand miles to bring about much-needed tranquility and calm to the Philippines' troubled south.

What Happened?

There is genuine confusion as to who should be primarily blamed over the tragedy. Depending on their ideological bent or political leaning, opinion-makers in the country have forwarded, based on available information, a specific version of events. There are serious questions over whether Aquino himself was aware of and directly involved in spearheading the SAF operation against Marwan and Usman. The SAF, the elite component of the Philippine National Police (PNP), is not part of the military chain of command of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). The PNP is a civilian agency, operating under the aegis of the National Police Commission (NPC). The president exercises administrative control and supervision over the NPC as well as the interior ministry as the chief executive.

There was a $5 million and $2 million bounty on Marwan and Usman, respectively, so the Mamasapano operation represented a particularly sensitive and crucial anti-terror operation, which was allegedly undertaken with sustained planning and logistical support from the U.S. government. Since 2001, the Philippines and its top security ally, the U.S., have been coordinating anti-terror/insurgency operations in Mindanao as part of the broader Global War on Terror (GWoT) campaign, which was launched under the Bush administration. As stipulated by the Philippine constitution, foreign troops are not allowed to directly engage in combat operations on Philippine soil, but they are allowed to provide certain types of operational-tactical support to their Filipino counterparts, who are directly involved in combat operations.

The Mamasapano operation was planned and undertaken with utmost secrecy in order to avoid any intelligence leak. There was apparently even no coordination with the Philippine military brass. Marwan is confirmed to have been killed during the operation, but Usman was able to escape. Government sources allege that members of the MILF (105th Base Command) as well as the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), an ultra-radical splinter group, were involved in a joint assault against the SAF commandos. According to some accounts, the SAF 55th Company, who acted as the blocking force, suffered the bulk of the casualties, while the majority of the SAF 84th Company, who were directly involved in taking out Marwan, were safely extricated from the area.

Responding to questions as to why the AFP didn't support the SAF commandos, military officials argue that they had to observe an existing ceasefire with the MILF in the area. Some top officials like the Interior and Local Government Secretary Mar Roxas have described the incident as a "misencounter", raising the possibility that the insurgent forces mistook the SAF's civilian law-enforcement operation as a military incursion by the AFP. He also lamented the lack of urgent support from the AFP for the besieged SAF commandos.

Saving the Peace Process

The MILF leadership has categorically denied the existence of any form of operational coordination with the BIFF; it has also denied accusations that it has been harboring terror suspects, while accusing the Philippine government of undermining the peace negotiations by dispatching the SAF into MILF-controlled areas without prior coordination. Perturbed by the possibility of a breakdown in negotiations, and resumptions in mutual armed hostilities as a result of the tragedy, the MILF's Chairman al-Haj Murad Ebrahim reiterated his commitment to peace, declaring how an "enduring peace and justice remain to be our primary objective"

Responding to growing calls for swift action, Aquino tried to assuage his critics by accepting responsibility. In an emotionally-charged speech, he declared: "The tragedy happened under my leadership...I'll carry this event until my last days. They are my responsibility." But Aquino fell short of directly accusing the MILF's top leadership of any direct culpability. Both sides have sought to prevent hardliners within their ranks from exploiting the situation to undercut the ongoing peace negotiations, the latest round of which saw the signing of the protocols for the decommissioning of the MILF troops' firearms.

To underscore their mutual commitment to fight against terror groups, the AFP and the MILF have reportedly engaged in various forms of cooperation, operational support, and joint assaults against the BIFF and the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) in recent weeks. The local chief executive of Mamasapano town along with the MILF leadership have also vowed to facilitate the capture of Usman.

The Aquino administration and the MILF's top brass are seeking to present a common front in rooting out extremism in Mindanao. The ultimate challenge, however, is how to ensure justice for the victims of the massacre without undercutting genuine efforts at preventing a new round of all-out war between the AFP and the MILF. This would entail a herculean effort on both sides: They should sideline the hardliners within their ranks, emphasize areas of common interest, and re-focus the national debate on the peace process in Mindanao.

After hundreds of years of collective struggle for independence and self-identity -- first against the Spanish and the Americans, and later against post-Independence government in Manila -- the Muslim people in Mindanao, just as their Christian brethren across the country, are more than eager to embrace a new era of hope and peace, turning the page to a new chapter in their long-tortured history.

There is no alternative to peace.