ILIGAN CITY -- You can talk through us.
This is the message of Mindanao civil society leaders to both government and the armed followers of Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) founder Nur Misuari who laid siege on Zamboanga City since September 9.
On Thursday, leaders of civil society organizations from various areas of Mindanao began streaming into Zamboanga City in a bid to open an alternative line of communication between government and the MNLF forces “so that a dialogue can be started and the crisis can be resolved soon.”
Early in the crisis, civil society groups have called on both government and the MNLF to declare a humanitarian ceasefire for the sake of the civilians caught in the crossfire. This was never heeded.
The standoff between government troops and MNLF forces entered its 19th day Friday with the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) assuring that they have new information on siege leader, Ustadz Habier Malik.
Police have said that over 100 MNLF fighters have been killed and scores have been either arrested or surrendered to authorities. The rest are still engaged in sporadic gunfight with government forces, holding civilian hostages to shield them from an aggressive combat assault.
At the beginning of the week, government security forces said they have already contained Malik and his remaining forces and constricted their movements.
More than 150,000 people have been affected by the renewed outbreak of violence with more than 10,000 homes destroyed, according to an estimate of the United Nations’ Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
Triumph of hawks
Lawyer Mary Ann Arnado, secretary-general of the Mindanao Peoples Caucus, said the persistence of fighting for almost three weeks now represents “a failure of conflict resolution and mediation efforts.”
“It’s a triumph of the hawks over the doves,” Arnado stressed.
The Misuari faction of the MNLF said they rebelled anew against government due to its supposed moves to trash the 1996 Final Peace Agreement and their seclusion in the upcoming Bangsamoro transition which results from a separate peace process with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
“Zamboanga paid such a high price to put across this message to government,” Arnado noted.
But government flatly denied the contentions of the MNLF-Misuari faction.
“Obviously, if both parties continue talking through their guns, they will never understand each other. It is only through dialogue that their respective messages to each other can be clearly conveyed,” Arnado explained.
The MNLF’s account of how the standoff shaped also does not sit well with government. The MNLF claimed its followers were only aiming to hold a peace rally on Sept. 9 and raise the group’s banner at the City Hall grounds when they were rounded up by authorities.
What puzzled authorities is their coming to Zamboanga fully armed. Many of its followers who were arrested or who surrendered also related that they were duped into joining the supposed peace rally with the promise of livelihood assistance and other monetary rewards.
When the crisis began, government has requested Indonesia to provide a channel through which Misuari can relay messages on ways to resolve the situation. But none were received, so far.
The Organization of Islamic Cooperation, composed of 57 Muslim states, also declared its willingness to help resolve the crisis but nothing has come out yet in that direction.
On Friday, the Philippine Red Cross (PRC) and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said “prospects for the displaced (in Zamboanga) are looking very grim.”
“With thousands of houses completely burned down and public infrastructure having suffered significant damage as a result of the fighting, many civilians will never be able to return to their homes,” said an ICRC-PRC Joint Operational Update.
"This is a devastating reality for the population of Zamboanga as a whole," said Gwendolyn Pang, PRC secretary-general.
"Besides losing their homes, many people have lost their livelihoods. They will need to rebuild their lives from scratch, which will take considerable time and effort,” Pang added.
Earlier, Zamboanga City Mayor Maria Isabelle Climaco-Salazar estimated that some P5 billion in local economic output have been lost, so far, since the start of the siege.
Pang said that given the situation now, they are preparing to “work to respond to long-term displacement."