The war for hearts and minds

Posted on 05 March 2015 by Zehlhez

Grassroots and Governance, BY TERESA S. ABESAMIS


THE HARDEST PART about winning the peace in Mindanao is not a matter of armaments, or of military tactics and strategy. It is the fight to win the hearts and minds of legislators, Muslim leaders, foot soldiers of both government and rebel forces, civil society leaders, fathers and mothers.


Even the military knows that the war in Mindanao, which they have fought for over 40 years, is unwinnable through arms alone. Secretary Ging Deles of the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (OPAPP), and Miriam Coronel Ferrer of the government’s peace negotiation team have their hands full dealing with legislators, many of whom, notably Senator Alan Peter Cayetano, are acting like bullies who can’t seem to listen.


Passing the Bangsamoro Basic Law is necessary, but it will be just a start toward peace in Mindanao. And no one can deny this is in the national interest. The veterans of decades of war in Mindanao — in the police and military, and in the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) — are the strongest advocates for an end to the conflict. They have risked their lives for years, and now want to end this senseless conflict.


First, if we are truly listening to the appeals of MILF peace negotiator Mohagher Iqbal, Secretary Deles and Professor Ferrer, plus multi-awarded General Carlito Galvez — former head of the Scout Rangers and the 104th Brigade, and now on the government panel for the Joint Coordinating Committee on the Cessation of Hostilities (CCCH) — the peaceniks in the MILF are losing their political capital among their followers, with all the negativity, nay, insults being hurled at the advocates for the peace process. Fortunately, Iqbal has wisely been very patient; but how long can he hold his pain?


Fortunately, the President, in his speech commemorating the 29th anniversary of the EDSA Revolution, declared his unambiguous and clear-cut support for the peace process and for the passing of the Bangsamoro Basic Law by June this year. The President’s speech, although delivered in his low-key style, was passionate in his advocacy. His statement in elegant Pilipino, that love and compassion (pag-ibig at malasakit) are more powerful than weapons reminded me of Pope Francis’ words during his visit to our country. The President, like Pope Francis, spoke of love and forgiveness. It is an awesome challenge to our Christian majority who hold the reins of power in our country. The President reminded us of how his desire for vengeance for the brutal death of his father was overcome by the compassion that his family received from thousands upon thousands of our countrymen. He recalled how demonstrated love for our soldiers overturned the might of the military dictatorship during our bloodless revolution on EDSA, which enabled the world to discover the extraordinariness of the Filipino people. How offerings of rosaries and flowers caused tanks and armored vehicles to turn back and disobey their commander-in-chief.


Obviously, the peace will be won not by armed government forces, but by the converted peaceniks in the MILF whom we should support all the way. This will strengthen their ability to govern their autonomous region effectively, and to rapidly and radically change the socio-economic situation of their people, including the disadvantaged Lumads.


Let us be mindful that the MILF peaceniks are competing with domestic war freaks and international jihadists who have been orienting and recruiting discontented militants to their insane causes. The peceniks need our help to win this competition for the hearts and minds of their own people. To weaken their leadership is to lose the peace. Consideration of this is probably what has caused Deles and Ferrer to be accused of “lawyering for the MILF.”


The Bangsamoro and Lumad regions have the highest poverty incidence, the lowest educational attainment, the highest infant and maternal mortality rates, and the lowest life expectancy in our country. These pathetic conditions are fertile grounds for insurgency and radicalism. Why are our legislators and their friends opposing generous budget allocations for the proposed Bangsamoro Autonomous Region? They have tons of catching up to do. We need affirmative action. We must also have authentic respect for their desire to preserve their unique and rich cultural traditions, which are being threatened day by day by war and by irresponsible Christians who engaged in destructive mining and illegal logging.


I don’t know why our zealous Justice Secretary Leila de Lima is on an aggressive investigation to uncover who among the MILF soldiers were responsible for killing the 44 Special Action Force (SAF) commandos. We are also demanding they return more of the guns and personal effects than they have already returned. Iqbal has revealed that they have already expended much political capital to overcome the traditional attitude that the combatants are entitled to war “booty.”


First of all, are we trying to find out who started the fire fight? Remember that the SAF commandos were the ones who, on orders, stealthily entered the other side’s territory, and who fired their guns inside the hut of Marwan. This made armed militants react. After all, there had been no coordination with the MILF leadership, or with the joint peace panels. General Galvez of the CCCH himself warned during the Senate hearings on the Mamasapano tragedy that if there is no coordination, there will be more bloodshed. Because he said it softly, no one was listening. General Galvez also said that the entry of the SAF was perceived as a “betrayal” of the ceasefire agreement.


If we listen hard enough to how the militants felt and why they reacted violently, we might be able to understand what really happened and thereby find a way to move forward on the peace process, currently on tenuous ground.


If you were an MILF leader committed first of all to the welfare of the Bangsamoro people, and second to the peace process as a means of attaining that, you would probably keep your options open, in case things do not work out. This is your duty as a leader. So, we should not be surprised if they are in fact doing this. Why shouldn’t they? Up to this day, we still regard them as outsiders, not Filipinos. We count only 44 SAF fatalities in the Mamasapano tragedy; we exclude as victims the 18 MILF and civilian casualties.


The present military offensive against the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) and other war freaks seems to be coordinated with the MILF leadership. This gives a chance for both parties to regain mutual trust.


The challenge for our Christian majority leadership is to demonstrate true Christianity: to show compassion, love and forgiveness, which, as both the President and Pope Francis have said, are more powerful than weapons. It calls for extraordinariness. But, as we demonstrated on EDSA, we Filipinos are extraordinary when we get our act together. Let’s do it again. All the way to peace and prosperity for our fellow Filipinos in Mindanao. It will be good for our country. This has got to be our biggest challenge yet as a people.


Teresa S. Abesamis is a former professor at the Asian Institute of Management and an independent development management consultant.


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