Dozens of police officers were killed in an anti-terror raid that has dented the popularity of Philippine President Benigno Aquino, rendering major reforms unlikely during the rest of his term, says analyst Alecia Quah.
Terming it as a show of goodwill, the largest Muslim rebel group in the Philippines, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), returned firearms of the police commandos killed in an assault at the end of January. MILF military chief Von Al Haq was quoted by local media as saying that his group's members got hold of the weapons after their encounter with the police, which left 44 officers dead.
The number of casualties government forces suffered was the biggest single-day combat loss in recent past. The police were killed by members of the MILF and its breakaway group - the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) - when they entered rebel-controlled territory in the country, while conducting an anti-terror operation seeking two suspects.
The incident has imperiled the government's peace talks with the rebels. The attack has eroded political backing for President Aquino to continue to engage in negotiations aimed at bringing lasting peace to the country, 40 years after the outbreak of a Muslim separatist conflict in Mindanao, the country's second biggest and southernmost major island.
Public opposition to the granting of further concessions to the MILF has also stiffened. At the same time, calls have been growing for Aquino to step down.
In a DW interview, Alecia Quah, Philippines expert at IHS Country Risk, a global analytics firm, says President Aquino is likely to be beleaguered for the remainder of his tenure by allegations of negligence over the incident as well as potential impeachment complaints.
DW: How has the recent botched operation in which 44 SAF troopers were killed affected public opinion on President Aquino's leadership?
Alecia Quah: President Aquino is facing perhaps his biggest crisis since assuming the Presidency in 2010. Public sentiment currently runs high over the deaths of the 44 SAF police troopers in Mamasapano (Maguindanao), and there are likely to be increasing calls for those responsible for the incident (both on the government's as well as the MILF's part) to be held accountable.
How big a crisis President Aquino facing at the moment?
Key lawmakers have already called for the president's resignation, with the National Transformation Council (NTC), comprised of Catholic bishops and Christian leaders, demanding that Aquino be held accountable. With his term in office due to expire in June 2016, a military coup is unlikely.
However, the president is likely to be beleaguered by allegations of negligence over the Mamasapano incident as well as potential impeachment complaints, for the remainder of his tenure.
Is this incident likely to direct the president's attention away from other key issues, potentially causing a policy paralysis?
With his administration otherwise occupied, it is unlikely that further reforms and major policy changes requiring Congressional approval, would be passed until the next President takes office in 2016. It is therefore increasingly likely that Aquino will become a lame duck president as the elections draw closer.
A further implication is that with his popularity directly compromised over the Mamasapano incident, an endorsement by Aquino for any successor that he could potentially name would carry less clout than before, further compounding his Liberal Party's challenges in the next presidential elections.
What does this mean for the prospects of peace in Mindanao?
With the public sentiment very much against the government granting any further concessions to the MILF in the wake of Mamasapano, it is likely that the passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) will be delayed, or that a watered-down version of the law will be passed.
This has the potential to derail the timelines that have been built into the peace process, namely the holding of a plebiscite after the BBL is enacted, followed by the subsequent election of Bangsamoro officials.
What affect would a derailed peace process have on the country?
The political instability in Manila, complicated by a fractured peace process in Mindanao, would in turn give other rebel groups that are opposed to the peace process greater pretext and opportunity to stage spoiler attacks, designed to sabotage the peace agreement altogether.
Should the peace process falter therefore, this would pose grave risks to the security outlook in Mindanao as a whole, the stability of which critically hinges on the government and the MILF preserving their relationship and installing a credible and functioning ministerial Bangsamoro government.
Alecia Quah is a Senior Analyst at IHS Country Risk in Singapore.