Zamboanga isn't that far away-A A +A
The Point Being
Friday, September 13, 2013
GROWING up in the 70s, one of the folksongs I learned was the one titled “Don’t You Go to Far Zamboanga”, possibly a translation of the Chavacano song “No Te Vayas de Zamboanga” by Juan Cuadrado Sr.
The first stanza, sung by a female singer went “Don't you go, oh don't you go/To far Zamboanga/Where you may forget your darling far away/Don't you go, oh don't you go/For if you leave me/How can I without you stay?” At which point the male singer replied with “Oh weep not, my dear paloma/Oh weep not, for I'll return/Oh weep not, my little darling/I shall remember and I shall yearn.”
During those Martial Law years, it made sense not to go to Zamboanga City and the rest of the peninsula that by then was reeling from militarization, former President Marcos’s response to the armed challenge posed by the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF).
Strategic even during the pre-colonial days, Zamboanga was the main entry point of people coming from Basilan, Sulu, Tawi-Tawi, and even Palawan and the territories in Borneo shared by Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia. Perhaps this was to be expected given that its original “Samboangan” meant "docking point" and was supposedly derived from the term “sabuan”, a wooden pole for propelling watercrafts.
Fast-forward to forty years later, the travel advisories of a number of countries echoed the call to not go to Zamboanga and other places in Western and Central Mindanao.
The most recent of Zamboanga’s travails being the events in mid-September 2013 that saw battle between a segment of MNLF forces and the Philippine military right in the City. Armed MNLF allegedly led by Ustadz Habier Malik and others had entrenched themselves in seven coastal barangays of the City and have been engaged in combat with the military.
The City got paralyzed for nearly five days with around 13,000 citizens fleeing to evacuation centers and the rest staying in-doors. An estimated twelve people had reportedly been killed. Among the photographs that circulated in social media networks was of a young girl, a gun held to her side by one of the invading forces, obviously a hostage and along with others used as a human shield. The look of fear and distress on this young civilian’s face would have been cause enough to weep.
For a time, it was unclear who the forces were, or more specifically which blocks of the MNLF were involved. It needs to be understood that the MNLF is not a monolithic structure. In recent years, there have been a number of factions, and has led to qualifiers like the bloc (supposedly the biggest and most active) led by former Cotabato City Mayor Muslimin Sema, the Isnaji group of former ARMM Speaker Isnaji Alvarez, the Islamic Command Council of Habib Mujahab Hashim, and the so-called Misuari loyalist faction. Recently, the MNLF Senior Leaders' Forum that included former Sulu governor Yusoph Jikiri and Abdul Sahrin was formed in dialog with government with the purpose of ensuring “cooperation in the implementation of socio-economic programs in communities of former Moro rebels in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM)”. Although Prof. Misuari has not publicly accepted responsibility for the recent crisis in Zamboanga, the forces actively involved are associated with him.
What is also triggering much speculation is the question on motives. If MNLF spokesperson lawyer Emmanuel Fontanilla were to be believed, they only intended to secure the area for a planned visit by MNLF leader Nur Misuari. It has been said that Misuari’s grievances in relation to the GPH-MNLF Final Peace Agreement, and perhaps specifically in the context of the ongoing peace talks between government and the MILF underpinned the Zamboanga fiasco.
It can be remembered that Misuari, who once served as ARMM Regional Governor, declared on July 28, 2013 the creation of the independent United Federated States of Bangsamoro Republik (UFSBR), which apparently includes the whole of Mindanao, Sulu, Palawan and Sabah. The reported plan to raise the UFSBR flag at the Zamboanga City Hall, initially mentioned as the main objective of the group that converged in Zamboanga, has been denied by Fontanilla. Not so unrelated, Davao City is the declared capital of the UFSBR.
Shortly thereafter the Davao City local chief executive was quoted as saying that the MNLF was welcome in Davao and even offered to have the UFSBR flag raised at City Hall flagpole but under certain conditions. Whether ascribable to the political savvy of Davao City officials, or the capacity for political tolerance of Davaoeños, perhaps there is something to be learned from Davao’s experience with the MNLF. Misuari has mobilized a number of times in Davao and these did not become disruptive. The MNLF even join the parades during the annual Kadayawan. Hopefully these are hallmarks of political maturity rather than just brokered and temporary arrangements.
Until and unless we are able to get to the bottom of things it would be too simplistic to say that government, whether central or local, is at fault for the Zamboanga situation. That would negate the ability of the MNLF Misuari faction to engage in tactics that it deems effective in asserting its claims. The attitude of reducing the situation to a mere ploy to divert public attention is dismissive and does not recognize the complex and historic roots of the Bangsamoro struggle.
That being said, it probably is also not beyond political operators to try to manipulate the situation to advance their own ends. So while the Zamboanga events might not necessarily have been orchestrated by those trying to get out of the pork barrel spotlight, it is also not unlikely that they will try to make use of it in the process.
For instance, call it being overly suspicious but much is being made out of a social network post ostensibly from popular actress Jodi Sta. Maria, girlfriend of Cavite Vice-Governor Jolo Revilla, calling on President Aquino to focus on the Zamboanga crisis. The alleged link being that Jolo Revilla is the son of Senator Ramon Bong Revilla Jr., one of the legislators implicated in the Napoles pork barrel scam.
There is much to be done to address the crisis in Zamboanga, foremost of these being to ensure the protection of civilians and the cessation of armed confrontation. I hope that government would also learn the lesson that while no peace process is ever perfect, there are some things that has to be done right the first time, among these effectively addressing the armed capacity of non-state armed groups.
Whether called demobilization, disarmament, reintegration or normalization, it is important that as part of the political agreement the armed capacity of non-state combatants be put “beyond use.” This obviously did not happen with the MNLF when the Final Peace Agreement was signed in 1996.Concretely put, in the end armed groups that enter into political settlements should not be allowed to carry and keep guns unless they are members of the recognized armed forces.
And while it is important to support individuals, families and communities who were formally involved in a war effort to transition to more peaceful, productive and fulfilling modes of living, it is also imperative to assist military-oriented organizations to reinvent themselves and find other, more peaceful, and more effective means of participating in the body politic.
Going back to the song, the point being that these must be achieved because we do not want more palomas (literally doves, signifying the innocents, the civilians) to weep; and regardless of where we are, Zamboanga -- or rather the crisis it is experiencing -- is really not that far away.
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Published in the Sun.Star Davao newspaper on September 14, 2013.