As the Philippines mourns the deaths of policemen killed in an anti-terror operation, many fear the collapse of a peace deal with MILF rebels. DW speaks to Steven Rood about the political impact of the recent firefight.
Philippine President Benigno Aquino declared Friday a day of mourning for the 44 police commandos killed on January 25 when their anti-terror operation, aimed at capturing or killing a top Islamist militant, took a turn for the worse. It was the government's biggest single-day combat loss in recent memory, prompting calls for retribution which could potentially threaten the peace process 40 years after the outbreak of a Muslim separatist conflict in Mindanao, the country's second biggest and southernmost major island.
Aquino also called for continuous support for the pact after citing a decision by a few senators to withdraw their support for a proposal in a bill designed to establish a more powerful autonomous region for minority Muslims in the south of the Catholic-majority nation.
Mindanao is home to the biggest and most relevant Muslim minority in the archipelago, the indigenous Moro people. According to the draft law, the Autonomous Government of Bangsamoro will build on the powers of the current Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). Created in 1989, the ARMM is composed of five predominantly Muslim provinces and is the only region that has its own government.
Steven Rood, the Asia Foundation's country representative in the Philippines and a member of the Third Party Monitoring Team that oversees the implementation of the agreements, explains in a DW interview why he believes the latest incident shows just how far the situation needs to change for peace to be achieved in the Southeast Asian country.
DW: Is the peace process now in jeopardy?
Steven Rood: After the tragic encounter in Mamasapano, in Maguindanao Province, many have wondered about Congressional passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law, which is part of the implementation of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro. Coming just as the legislature was wrapping up public hearings and beginning detailed review of the draft law, the heavy death toll among police raises doubts about the sincerity of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) as a partner in the search for peace.
Members of the Philippine National Police are naturally outraged at the massive loss of life in this operation. However, all agree that the engagement was a result of the deliberate bypassing of ceasefire mechanisms in place that are meant to allow the pursuit of criminals - as the commander of the Special Action Force said, coordination did not happen because "We don't trust the MILF."
However, many concerned individuals and organizations - such as the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, Mindanao Business Council, and the Philippine Center for Islam and Democracy - have warned against allowing one horrific incident to derail the peace process.
In Congress, two senators have withdrawn their endorsement of the draft bill, depriving the effort of a natural majority in the upper house. In the House of Representatives, the special Ad Hoc Committee, considering the draft bill has slowed down its work, has postponed consideration of the provisions regarding peace, security, and policing.
Those who were already opposed to the bill cited Mamapasano as a further justification for their skepticism and some who were genuinely undecided will now suspend judgment further until investigations have been completed. While acknowledging these reactions, supporters such as Senate President say that "We should not junk the Bangsamoro Basic Law."
What is public opinion like in the Philippines after the killings?
Public opinion is naturally very engaged, with a spontaneous memorial of flowers springing up in front of the national headquarters of the police. On the other hand, many questions are being raised as to how the operation came to such a bad conclusion, with the Philippine Commission on Human Rights saying that those responsible for operational lapses should be held accountable.
The public in general has always been in favor of peaceful means in dealing with the MILF, and this remains the case (albeit with diminished majorities) even after violent encounters such as the ones occurred in 2008 and 2011.
What triggered the bungled anti-terror raid in the first place?
Authorities have long sought to arrest Malaysian terrorist Zulkifli Bin Hir (aka "Marwan") and Filipino Abdulbasit Usman, seeking hard information on their whereabouts in the southern Philippines. Reports suggest that for the past several months the Special Action Force and police intelligence were developing leads, and finally felt they had good information.
While in the past, operations in the area of Mindanao against the rogue Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) had been carried out in coordination with the MILF and the Philippine Army, in this instance the Special Action Force (SA)F decided not to utilize this mechanism. Thus, not only did the MILF not step aside, as they had been doing to allow Philippine security forces unimpeded access to the area, but the Philippine Army was also unaware that this operation was being undertaken.
The botched anti-terror operation was the government's biggest single-day combat loss in recent memory
Thus, when the SAF ran into heavy resistance, the army was not in a position to come to their aid for some time. We are not yet sure how the fighting progressed. One report suggests that the SAF simply ran out of ammunition and were utterly overrun.
Have the authorities managed to capture or kill all the rebel leaders behind the shooting?
As for the targets of the operation, the individual terrorists, investigation is ongoing as to whether they were killed in the encounter. As for both BIFF and MILF leaders, it has not been possible to take them into custody.
The MILF has announced an internal investigation on their part, with members of the Central Committee and military command structure, which President Aquino has welcomed. However, President Aquino stated that such an investigation is not enough, that concrete steps will need to be taken by the MILF to lay this incident to rest.
What would be the consequence of delaying the passing of the autonomy bill?
For the implementation of the peace agreement, the next step after Congress passing the bill is a plebiscite to ratify it in the territories being covered. Upon ratification an MILF-led Bangsamoro Transition Authority (BTA) would be appointed with some urgent tasks on its agenda: crafting an electoral code to cover the region's parliamentary form of government - unique in the Philippines, and an administrative code to organize the new regional government.
Since elections are scheduled throughout the Philippines for May 2016, even in the best case scenario the BTA would have only months to accomplish the reforms; with delay that timeframe shrinks to weeks.
In the face of possible delays there is increasing talk of extending the transition through 2019 (the next round of elections) but doing this is uncharted authority – both as to how to accomplish the extension, and the implications on many facets of the agreement.
How important is this bill, not just for Mindanao, but also for the whole of the Philippines?
The Philippines has long suffered from bad news – throughout the world what many people know of the country is that it suffers from both natural disasters and violent conflict. The area in question is rich in natural resources and has the potential to contribute greatly to Philippine development, but investors are naturally put off by the threat of violent instability.
The bill is only one part of a complex agreement that includes "normalization" processes that can be undertaken already by the MILF and the executive branch. These processes include the decommission of MILF forces, dismantling of other armed groups, the redeployment of the Armed Forces to focus more on external defense, the creation of a new Police Service for the Bangsamoro, socio-economic development initiatives, and issues of transitional justice.
All of these need to go ahead to truly stop the violence, but as of yet they are only just now getting started. The tragic Mamapasano incident shows just how far the situation needs to change.
In light of the growing resistance, what needs to happen for the autonomy bill to pass in parliament?
First, investigations of the incident by both the government and the MILF need to establish exactly what occurred, and accountability needs to be exacted. Second, those in favor of the passage of the bill, led by President Aquino, need to persist in their efforts.
Of course, the bereaved families on both sides (the MILF lost ten men themselves) must be succored, and time must pass to allow calm consideration of all factors. In the end, it is likely that the bill will be passed within the next few months.
Dr. Steven Rood is The Asia Foundation's Country Representative for the Philippines and Pacific Island Nations. You can follow him on Twitter @StevenRoodPH.
The interview was conducted by Gabriel Domínguez.