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by Jennie S. Bev

The Mindanao conflict is one of the oldest and the most misunderstood conflicts in human history. The complexity of this conflict involving intricate relationships pertaining to self-determination and access and control pertaining to land, which is often referred to as “ancestral domain”, and natural resources among the Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP) and three peoples —Muslim Bangsamoro, Christian settlers, and indigenous tribes— is made even more multifarious with vertical and horizontal clashes and other external elements. The other elements are communist rebels, extremist Muslim terrorists, capitalistic corporations, biased media favouring the government and politicians, and corrupt politicians at Manila and local levels.

With culture of impunity ever prevalent, foul politics by corrupt politicians, warlords, and military elements have been causing tremendous casualties. The recent massacre of 47 people in the town of Datu Abdullah Sanki in Maguindanao province, which has forced President Gloria Arroyo to declare national state of emergency on November 23, 2009, is a case of foul local politics between Muslim clans.

Clan conflicts in Mindanao are called “rido.” Other than politics, a “rido” can be ridden with land, familial, and marital disputes, among others.

The killings occurred when the wife of Esmael Mangudadatu —an opponent of Ampatuan, jr, the son of current Maguindanao governor Andal Ampatuan-travelled to register for her husband’s electoral candidacy. In a “rido,” women and children are usually spared, but apparently not in this incident. Mangudadatu’s wife and two sisters were killed. Journalists also made a significant part of the casualties.

While the alleged reason of this recent massacre is local politics, tension in the region has been bottled up since the nullification of Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD) in August 2008 by the Philippines Supreme Court. The ground of abuse of power by Arroyo was that she had no capacity to amend the Constitution without consulting the Congress. Since then, there has been a vacuum on Mindanao peace talks, despite 35 years of advocacy and diplomacy.

In this incident, the alleged mastermind of the massacre Ampatuan family are known for their support in presidential election in 2004. They were actively involved in ensuring 100 per cent of vote for Arroyo in some regions. This fact is placing Arroyo in a difficult situation, particularly in maintaining peace in the region today.

The culture of political betrayals, political killings, high-profile manhunts, and warlordism has been rampant throughout Mindanao. Whether Arroyo owns the will and the real capacity to turn things around in Mindanao is a big question mark and we’re likely to see similar patterns. The hands of GRP have not been innocent, even though they are often called “hardcore political tactics.” And these are the same pair of hands regardless of the person who preside over. During the last three presidencies —Fidel Ramos, Joseph Estrada, and Gloria Arroyo— significant milestones have been made even though dead ends were inevitable. Marcos set the precedent of “GRP political betrayals” when he showed disrespect towards the Moros by imposing discriminatory policies and breaching agreements, despite the celebrated 1976 Tripoli Agreement.

Truce agreement was successfully signed during Corazon Aquino period, which was followed by Fidel Ramos’ agreements with Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). Marcos and Ramos were successful in placing “the Philippines national law as the choice of law” clause in those agreements, which was a clear disadvantage for the Moros. Moreover, in the same agreement in 1996, Bangsamoro’s self-determination and rights to access and to control natural resources in the region were clearly lacking. A major alleged betrayal by Ramos occurred when 5,000 military personnel attacked the Moros on the first day of Ramadhan in 1997.

During Estrada administration, General Framework of Agreement of Intent between the Government and Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) was signed in August 1998.

However, another betrayal was allegedly done against the Moros when the military attacked the Moros on Aidil Fitri holiday.

Two years later, Moros’ autonomy was “repackaged” favouring GRP, which was not accepted by the former. Estrada policy was known as “total war against Moro separatists.”

Tripoli Agreement signed on June 22, 2001 served as an umbrella of forthcoming talks on ancestral domain. However, despite Arroyo direct opposite of Estrada’s “total war policy,” she allegedly ordered an attack against the Moros during Aidil Adha day in February 2003. In July 2003, MILF was accused of bombings in Davao City that later turned out to be done by the military.

Ceasefire occurred soon after but later was broken by an MILF member in January 2005. Another ceasefire followed during which multiple talks in Malaysia occurred between GRP and the Moros resulting in a mutual agreement on ancestral domain in 2006. A major blow occurred when the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain was declared dead on arrival in August 2008 due to declared by the Supreme Court as “unconstitutional.”

The ambience and precedents have showed GRP’s unwillingness to follow through Mindanao political issues with respectable political will and diplomatic spirit. The recent Mangudadatu massacre in Maguindanao province might be seen as a minuscule problem within the complex web of Mindanao conflicts, thus it might not deserve Arroyo’s full attention and interest. After all, the Moros have not been completely considered a “clean” ally, despite Ampatuan family’s contributions in Arroyo’s victory in 2004.

The Mindanao conflicts should not be left evolving incessantly without any genuine intervention to bring peace back in the society. Let this recent political massacre be a strong reminder of how serious things have been. After all, politics are global, regardless of how local they are.[]

The Brunei Times, December 5, 2009

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