Misuari Is Back, Can He Help Bring Peace to Mindanao?

Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) leader Nur Misuari (L) shaked hands with Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process Jesus Dureza, after a court suspended a warrant for Misuari's arrest, at Jolo, in southern Philippines November 3, 2016. (Reuters Photo/Nickee Butlangan)

Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) leader Nur Misuari (L) shakes hands with Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process Jesus Dureza, after a court suspended a warrant for Misuari’s arrest, at Jolo, in southern Philippines November 3, 2016. (Reuters Photo/Nickee Butlangan)

Nur Misuari, the mercurial founding chairman of the Moro National Liberation Front, or MNLF, is back in circulation, back in the limelight, thanks to an old friend, Rodrigo Roa Duterte, president of the Philippines.

In the days to come, expect Misuari to stuff the airwaves with his fiery rhetoric.

He had been lying low in his Sulu mountain lair since 2013 after he led the failed siege of Zamboanga City, in which more than a hundred of his fighters lost their lives. The bloody siege devastated the city and many Zamboangeños cannot forgive him for the ordeal he had inflicted on them. But recently a local judge lifted the warrant for his arrest and thus he was able to fulfill Duterte’s invitation to participate in government-sponsored peace talks.

These new talks represent a “third cycle” in the Mindanao peace process set into motion by the Tripoli Agreement signed in Libya by the Philippine government and the MNLF in 1976.

The first cycle was the peace talks between the Philippine government and the MNLF mediated by Indonesia on behalf of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). It was launched in Cipanas, West Java, in 1992 and culminated in a Final Peace Agreement signed in September 1996 in Malacanang, Manila, by the administration of then president Fidel V. Ramos and the MNLF.

The late foreign minister Ali Alatas was the overall mediator; ambassador Wiryono Sastrohandoyo chaired the main committee; while the future foreign minister Hassan Wirajuda chaired the mixed committee. All the negotiating committees boasted a government panel, an MNLF panel and a panel of Indonesian mediators.

That cycle was a massive four-year undertaking that involved 70 meetings at technical level, eight mixed committee meetings — all held in southern Philippines — and four rounds of formal peace talks and a final mixed committee meeting held in Jakarta. The Final Peace Agreement provided for, among others, the integration of 7,500 MNLF fighters into the Philippine armed forces and the police, and for the socio-economic development of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).

The second cycle

But that “Final Agreement” was not really final, as not all Moro rebels recognized it. There is a breakaway group from the MNLF that even at that time had grown larger and stronger than the mother organization. Called the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), this group began informally negotiating with the Ramos government in 1996, thus starting a second cycle in the peace process. But Ramos’s successor, Joseph Estrada, took a harsh view of the MILF and instead of sustaining negotiations, waged total war against the front. Estrada’s successor, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo tried to craft her own peace agreement with the MILF, but the Philippine Supreme Court struck it down as unconstitutional.

Her successor, Benigno Aquino III, concluded a framework agreement and later a Comprehensive Agreement on Bangsamoro (CAB) with the MILF. But the legislation that would enable the implementation of the CAB, the Bangsamoro Basic Law, was killed in Philippine Congress after 44 elite police officers perished in a mis-encounter with the MILF early last year. That brought down the curtains on the second cycle of the Mindanao peace process.

Today the only effective peace agreement in Mindanao is the Final Peace Agreement mediated by Indonesia. Its implementation, much delayed in the case of several socio-economic provisions, is the subject of a tripartite review, with Indonesia representing the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in that process.

While the second cycle of the Mindanao peace process was carried out in fits and starts, Misuari was on a downward spiral. He had been elected unopposed as governor of the ARMM and had been appointed head of the Southern Philippines Council for Peace and Development, supposedly the transition authority toward a more powerful regional government. He thus became the most powerful person in Mindanao, next to the president, but he bungled the opportunity. The common observation is that he had no taste for governing.

Acts of rebellion

Several of his own colleagues in the MNLF, accusing him of incompetence as governor, ousted him as chairman in April 2000. On the eve of elections for his successor as ARMM governor in November 2001, a vengeful Misuari led a rebellion on Jolo Island and Zamboanga City. When the rebellion was crushed, he fled to Malaysia but the government there extradited him to the Philippines where he was detained for some time, but was eventually released.

On 09 September 2013, a faction of the MNLF that recognizes Misuari as chairman besieged Zamboanga City. This was on the eve of the signing of the Comprehensive Agreement on Bangsamoro (CAB) between the government of Benigno Aquino III and the MILF. Apparently the attack was an effort to disrupt the peace process. Heavy fighting during the first 12 days of the three-week crisis resulted in the death of more than 200 persons, a good number of them civilians. Most of the slain, however, were MNLF fighters.

In the aftermath, Nur Misuari went into hiding and would not emerge until recently when a newly minted President Duterte invited him to participate in new peace talks, this time involving both the MNLF and the MILF.

In simple but impressive rites, Duterte welcomed him, expressing optimism that he would contribute to the quest for peace in Mindanao. The question in the minds of many Mindanaoans is whether Misuari can still be a force for peace. I think he still can. He has a sizable mass base in the poor villages of Sulu and a comprehensive peace in Mindanao might be extremely difficult if this mass base were not on board. But the days are over when his charisma held absolute sway over the Bangsamoro. He must now adjust to the MILF’s stronger field presence and to the views of other MNLF factions. One faction is led by no less than Abul Khayr Alonto, his original MNLF vice-chairman, who now sits on the Duterte cabinet as head of the Mindanao Development Authority (Minda), and whose portfolio includes the BIMP-EAGA.

Mortality and redemption

Last February, Misuari installed his eldest son, 39-year-old Haji Uto Karim, a Shariah scholar who is reputedly more radical than his father, as his vice chairman. A diabetic, Misuari must be feeling less than subtle intimations of his mortality.

He may yet redeem himself, thanks to Duterte. He can be a constructive voice in this new effort to roll the good provisions of all previous agreements between the Philippine government and the Moro rebels into a single enabling law that will replace Republic Act 9054, the law that still supports the Final Peace Agreement concluded with Indonesian mediation.

But he has to tone down his divisive rhetoric and buckle down to the serious business of negotiating and partnering with others who also hold robust ideas on what constitutes progress, equality and justice.

It’s not only Misuari who must change. All the Moro negotiators, all of them, whether MILF or MNLF, have to transcend the ethnicity-based grievances and prejudices that now divide the mainland Moros — the Maguindanaons, the Maranaws and the Iranuns — from the island Moros — the Tausogs, the Samas and the Yakans.

If they cannot unite for the sake of the common good, not even a Mindanaoan president like Duterte can help them.

Jamil Maidan Flores is a Jakarta-based literary writer whose interests include philosophy and foreign policy. The views expressed here are his own. He may be contacted at jamilmaidanflores@gmail.com.

By Jamil Maidan Flores Posted in El Indio

Will Vladimir Putin Be Kingmaker in the South China Sea?

Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan during their meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia, August 9, 2016.  REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin  TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan during their meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia, August 9, 2016. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

In his geopolitical judo match with the West, Russian President Vladimir Putin has been scoring points lately. A year ago, who would think that his one-time nemesis, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, a key NATO member, would apologize for downing a Russian warplane near the Syrian border? Who would expect Erdogan to call on him at the Kremlin, hat in hand, for economic and political support?

This is no longer the Erdogan who vehemently denounced the Russian adventure in the Syrian battle theatre. Putin had entered the fray not so much to smash the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) but to prop the sagging fortunes of his bloodstained ally, Syrian strongman Bashir al-Assad, who is an abomination to Erdogan.

Today’s Erdogan is the survivor of a recent coup attempt and now he is waging a brutal and sweeping purge of the Turkish military, the police, the bureaucracy, the judiciary, the academia and the media — to the consternation of human rights-conscious Western governments and the United Nations. For support for his draconian methods, he has turned to Putin, who is now making the most of Erdogan’s contrition.

Putin’s streak of good luck began in August 2013 when US President Obama dithered on what to do with Assad, as the latter was caught using chemical weapons against Syrian rebels. A year earlier, Obama had drawn a “red line,” proclaiming dire consequences on Assad if he dared use chemical weapons; the red line had been crossed but Obama was loath to do anything that would draw the US deep into the Syrian civil war. Yet something had to be done, or the US would lose face. Russia proposed a compromise: Assad would give up all of his chemical weapons. Everybody agreed and Putin’s global stock skyrocketed.

Now he is about to get into a deal with the US to coordinate military operations against the Jabhat al-Nusra, self-renamed Jabhat al-Fatah al-Sham but still regarded as the Syrian franchise of Al-Qaeda. This deal will further legitimize Russian involvement in the Syrian civil war.

To think that this is happening while Russian cyber hackers are suspected of trying to help Donald Trump, an unabashed Putin worshipper, defeat Hillary Clinton, Putin’s sworn enemy, in the US presidential elections! Without his asking for it, US media have lionized him as a key player in the rough and tumble of American politics.

Even the Brexit vote has proven to be heaven’s gift to Putin. A European Union (EU) weakened by the departure of the United Kingdom is wont to be less severe in hitting Russia with sanctions over its annexation of Crimea and its Ukrainian caper. A diminished EU may not be so coherent in its response to Putin’s saber rattling at the de facto border between the Russian-annexed, heavily militarized Crimean Peninsula and the Ukrainian mainland.

A few days ago, Russian forces claimed they had repulsed a Ukrainian terrorist attack on Crimea, raising anxieties that Putin was fabricating a pretext for a full-scale invasion of Ukraine using troops and heavy weaponry already massed at the border. Most experts believe, however, that Putin is just propagating a fear of Russian invasion as leverage in future international negotiations over Ukraine. But in the hearts of the peoples of Ukraine and Eastern Europe he has succeeded in sowing fear.

Closer to home, who would have thought that Putin would be a major beneficiary of the ruling by the international tribunal that put the lie to China’s hyperbolic claim to the South China Sea? For many months, which must have been an eternity to Chinese leaders, Russia made no statement on the controversy — for or against the Chinese position.

In some circles, Putin’s silence was misread as a way of Russia taking sides with Vietnam, an old ally, and the Philippines against China. A China-based journalist, Mu Chunshan, has pointed out that China and Russia may have a relationship that has “some characteristics of a comprehensive strategic partnership,” but they are not allies. Neither has a treaty obligation to come to the other’s aid in case of war. Mu also cited longstanding Russian fears of Chinese expansionism.

At least one Philippine publication instantly jumped on Mu’s careful, non-committal analysis and over-interpreted it to mean that when push came to shove, Russia would side with Vietnam and the Philippines against China. That was wishful thinking.

Not long after the international tribunal laid down its ruling, Beijing triumphantly announced that China and Russia would be holding naval exercises in the South China Sea in September. China brandished the agreement as proof beyond doubt that Russia was on its side of the controversy.

Apparently the agreement was hastily reached in response to the ruling at China’s urgent behest. In the end it is just another naval exercise, an act of military showmanship, but China badly needs one that involves Russia at this time.

Why did it take Putin so long to come out on the side of China? Because Putin loves to see people twist in the wind. Thus even today Erdogan is twisting in the wind, not sure whether Putin has really reconciled with him and has forgotten about the downed Sukhoi. I have news for Erdogan: Putin has a long memory.

As to China, Putin knows very well that China needs him more than he needs China in the new Cold War between the global East and West. You can imagine him sitting smugly in the Kremlin smiling to himself over the thought that at any time he wishes, he can to a great extent help China become undisputed emperor of the South China Sea, in spite of the US Navy.

He can do this by selling to China his cutting edge sea-based cruise missiles, but he is not doing that yet—because that will be his leverage if he needs to negotiate a grand deal with the US.

Meanwhile, he sells to India first generation weapon systems more sophisticated than those he is selling to China. Clever geopolitician, this Vladimir Putin.

By Jamil Maidan Flores Posted in El Indio

Ramos’s Mission to China: Not to Settle a Dispute but to Repair Ties


Former Philippine President Fidel Ramos speaks to journalists during a trip to Hong Kong

Former Philippine President Fidel Ramos speaks to journalists during a trip to Hong Kong, China after the Hague court’s ruling over the maritime dispute in South China Sea, August 9, 2016. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

Fidel V. Ramos, the 12th president of the Philippines, recently flew to China in his role as special envoy for the 16th president, Rodrigo R. Duterte. His mission, according to early news reports, is “to resolve the dispute following an international tribunal’s ruling against China’s claims” to some 90 percent of the South China Sea.

That is not a realistic expectation. It will probably take decades before the dispute can be resolved. What Ramos will immediately try to achieve has to be a lot more modest. He needs only to break the ice that has grown thick between the two countries.

If there is a Filipino negotiator who has enough international prestige, experience and savvy to open a dialogue with the Chinese government and lead it delicately toward a long-term and mutually beneficial bilateral relationship between the two countries — it can only be Ramos.

For Ramos is arguably the best of the 15 presidents that the Philippines had before Duterte. When he took over from the administration of Cory Aquino, the Philippine economy had been crushed by the impact of at least half a dozen coup attempts, and the country suffered chronic power failures due to neglect of the energy sector. He fixed these problems and launched a period of economic boom by reforming and liberalizing the economy.

He was a peace president. He sought and secured peace agreements with military rebels and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). The final peace agreement between the Ramos government and the MNLF was facilitated by Indonesia on behalf of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and is widely regarded as a major legacy of the tenure of Ali Alatas as foreign minister. It remains the only effective peace agreement covering Muslim Mindanao up to this day.

Later Ramos opened negotiations with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), a breakaway faction of the MNLF. That process was maintained after Ramos completed his tenure and has been ongoing for almost two decades.

Since 2001, he has regularly traveled to China, being an initiator of and an eminent participant to the Boao Forum for Asia (BFA), a high-level platform based at Boao, Hainan where leaders of government, business and the academe from 20 Asian-Pacific countries discuss crucial regional and global issues. His network of China contacts must be wide and deep.

This will not be the first time that he deals with a Chinese government that has territorial and sovereignty issues with the Philippines. In response to a Chinese attempt to take Philippine-held Mischief Reef by stealth in 1996, he launched high-level dialogue with President Jiang Zemin, followed by a regional diplomatic initiative that eventually culminated in the signing of the Declaration of the Conduct of Parties (DOC) in the South China Sea several years later.

This time he will be dealing with a different China. No longer punctilious about its peaceful rise as a world power, this is a China that has ferociously defied the ruling of an international tribunal on its hyperbolic claim to almost all of the South China, and has already managed to reduce Asean to meek silence on that issue. This is a China that has exponentially expanded and modernized its military establishment, whose military officials talk cockily of their willingness to wade into “inadvertent confrontation” with the US Navy.

Indeed, this is a China that has been sending bombers, fighters and other military aircraft to fly over contested maritime territory in the South China Sea. Notable among these aircraft is the H-6K, a long-distance bomber, which, according to Chinese publicity, is capable of threatening Guam, a US island territory with a military base in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

Since 2010 or maybe even earlier, China has been sending flotillas of fishing boats, at least some of them manned by government-sponsored militia. These are escorted by armed coast guard ships deep into the East and South China Seas. China has been carrying out this expansionary tactic in contested waters in the China Seas as well as in undisputed territorial waters of Malaysia and Indonesia. Probably the idea is that if the affected countries were lulled into tolerating these stealth invasions, they could acquire some kind of legitimacy.

Even more alarming are the recent cyber attacks of apparently Chinese origin on computers at the Philippine Department of Justice and those of the international law firm that represented the Philippines in the Hague litigation. At about the same time, a hacker group that claimed to be based in China took over the computers at two of Vietnam’s biggest airports and the official website of the Vietnam Airlines so that they displayed visuals with captions that insult Vietnam and the Philippines on the South China Sea issue.

It is just possible that these hackers are playing the same role that the militia-cum-fishermen have assumed in the South China Sea. They are civilians, private groups serving an expansive, aggressive government policy, who can be disowned when the government stands accused of their aggression.

This, then, is the China that Ramos is dealing with — no longer the gentler, more reasonable China of 1996 that was personified by the simpatico President Jiang Zemin, but a pugnacious, bellicose China smarting from a recent international humiliation. No wonder many voices have been raised in the Philippines and Vietnam against his going to China to negotiate. Vietnamese observers have frantically warned that Ramos is walking into a trap, citing a 1974 incident when South Vietnam was negotiating with China when a Chinese force invaded a South Vietnam-held island in the Paracels.

But Ramos is not afraid to negotiate — even with a saber-rattling China. He has friendships all over China, and I am sure he believes in the natural decency of the Chinese people. On the other hand, as a young lieutenant in Korea in 1952, he successfully led a Philippine expeditionary platoon against a Chinese force in honorable combat — so displays of military strength do not impress him.

Moreover he knows in his heart that China needs a deal as much as the Philippines does. The Philippines needs help to exploit its own exclusive economic zone, and it wants Chinese financing to refurbish its infrastructures. China needs to recover lost international prestige by partnering on a mutually beneficial basis with the very country that brought it to court in The Hague. And China needs to show the world, especially its smaller neighbors, that a territorial and sovereignty dispute does not foreclose its entering into fruitful collaboration between equals.

Such a deal is very much possible. Ramos will go for it. Meanwhile, settlement of the dispute can wait for as long as a generation or two.

Jamil Maidan Flores is a Jakarta-based literary writer whose interests include philosophy and foreign policy. The views expressed here are his own. He may be contacted at jamilmaidanflores@gmail.com.

By Jamil Maidan Flores Posted in El Indio

To Save the BBL, the SAF-44 Had to Die

Vidal Erfe Querol was Philippine ambassador to Indonesia from 2007 to 2010. Before that, he led the Philippine National Police (PNP) National Capital Region command.

A batch mate of former Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in advanced military training in Fort Leavenworth, USA, he was also at one time top cop of the PNP Western Mindanao command. He was a young officer when, under heavy enemy fire he carried one of his wounded men a long way to safety, then wondered where he got the physical strength to do that. A graduate of the Philippine Military Academy, he is tough as nails.

But when he saw on TV a clip showing a Moro fighter giving the coup de grace in cold blood to a wounded and helpless police commando in Mamasapano, he wept. The commando was twitching in his death throes when he took a bullet to the face.

Many other battle-hardened veterans of the fight against the Moro separatist rebellions also wept on seeing the videocast, which has gone viral. They say you don’t have to go to the Middle East to experience the kind of brutality being wreaked by the Islamic State. You only have to go to certain parts of Mindanao.

The video is being analyzed by the Philippine National Bureau of Investigation as probable evidence in a future legal action. The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) denies that the perpetrator of the atrocity on is one of its fighters. It cites that it lost 18 of its fighters in that encounter.

At any rate, Querol says, when the encounter between the SAF and the MILF-BIFF was at its height on 25 January, the Philippine leadership had to make a choice—between the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) and the lives of the SAF commandos. The quick entry of a large military force to retrieve the SAF commandos trapped in Mamasapano would have aborted the passage of the BBL. That, in turn, would have killed the peace process between the government the MILF.

Apparently the leadership took the option of preserving the BBL at the cost of SAF lives.

Soldiers are always ready to die, says Querol. But when they’re face-to-face with death, they shouldn’t feel abandoned by their leaders. I add: they shouldn’t be made to feel that their lives are being traded for political objectives that are still debatable as to their worth in terms of the country’s welfare.

For in its present form and as understood by thoughtful observers, the BBL needs a lot of retouching before it can withstand various challenges to its constitutionality. It needs some repair before all stakeholders can feel it meets their needs.

It may not be possible to pass a BBL that satisfies all the aspirations of all stakeholders. But at the very least, no group of stakeholders should feel completely left out. Or else it will be the source of new conflict, new bloodshed. And at the very least, when it becomes law, there should be no way the Supreme Court can strike it down as unconstitutional.

On the other hand, you can tweak the BBL to make it Constitution-friendly only to see the MILF reject it as “watered-down.” Thus in working on the BBL, legislators will have to do a very delicate tightrope act.

That’s one big problem. Another is the trust deficit that has gaped wider as a consequence of the Mamasapano encounter. The war freaks are having a holiday shouting, “You just can’t trust the MILF.” It doesn’t help that at this writing the MILF hasn’t returned the equipment and effects that its fighters took from the dead commandos.

Meanwhile, Vidal Querol, at one time police commander of Western Mindanao, can only shake his head in woe and disbelief.

By Jamil Maidan Flores Posted in El Indio

Truth Also a Casualty in Mindanao “Mis-encounter”

Here I am in Jakarta, away from the battle site of Mamasapano in Southern Philippines, where 44 members of the Philippine National Police Special Action Force (PNP-SAF) were killed in the morning of 25 January.

Yet I’ve a source who told me yesterday that he was persuading a friend to share with us a video clip taken by a person on the side of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF). The clip, he said, showed some of the slain on the SAF side were unmistakably Caucasian.

I didn’t think much of this until hours ago when I read a banner story of the Manila Times written by its chairman emeritus Dr. Dante Ang. The burden of the piece is that in the Mamasapano raid, codenamed Operation Wolverine, the main protagonists were American agents out to get the Malaysian terrorist Marwan and the BIFF leader Abdulbasit Usman. The PNP-SAF commandos were only security escorts to the agents.

According to Ang’s unnamed informant, the Americans and their PNP-SAF escorts were allowed into Mamasapano on a deal with the MILF involving the peso equivalent of the combined bounties for the heads of Marwan and Usman, $6 million. The US agents made a downpayment of P60 million (about $1.3 million) but before the mission could be completed, the MILF demanded the balance of the bounties.

The agents couldn’t produce the money. There was an altercation, followed by a gunfight, then a rout. All the while, according to the informant, President Aquino and suspended PNP chief Alan Purisima were monitoring the battle at the US Drone Center in Zamboanga. Somebody in the field, presumably a military officer, radioed for permission to enter the fray and reinforce the embattled policemen.

Aquino himself allegedly responded, “Negative, negative. Stand down.” He was afraid if the army came to the rescue in force, the peace process between the government and the MILF would unravel. And so the SAF cops weren’t reinforced and they lost 44 men.

That’s one of the more interesting stories going around on the Mamasapano carnage. On its basis, many Filipinos are calling for Aquino’s resignation.

Purisima has an alibi. When he was allegedly at the US Drone Center he was actually elsewhere fulfilling a speaking engagement. But asked on the presence of American agents, he was reportedly evasive, saying only that those were matters of high security.

The SAF commander on the ground at one time claimed that his men were never reinforced by the military. The army, he said, had balked in view of the ceasefire between the government and the MILF.

Not so, says the official report of the military. Reinforcements were sent in immediately on request, even if the request came late, when the SAF was already getting battered. The military report also directly contradicts the Manila Times story.

Then finally, late last week, President Aquino assumed command responsibility for the Mamasapano carnage. “As President and Commander-in-Chief,” he said, “I bear responsibility for whatever victory, suffering or tragedy we may get in our desire to achieve long-term security and peace.”

Scoff Aquino’s critics: he owns the botched operation now because there’s a “victory” to take credit for. The US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has announced that DNA analysis of the finger taken from a man the SAF killed in Mamasapano proved that he was indeed the once slippery Marwan. His death trumps the loss of SAF44?

Meanwhile, conflicting stories fly about. Which is the truth?

Well, in a few weeks some 80 million Catholic Filipinos will be observing Holy Week and once more they’ll recall the story of Jesus in conversation with Pilate. When Jesus said that he came to attest to the truth, Pilate sneered: “What is truth?”

By Jamil Maidan Flores Posted in El Indio

“Mis-encounter” kills 44 cops but peace process survives

In the wake of the “mis-encounter” in the normally sleepy town of Mamasapano in Central Mindanao in the Philippines, where 44 elite policemen lost their lives, former President Fidel V. Ramos says there shouldn’t be finger-pointing among government officials, and there should be no stopping the passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) that will establish the new autonomous region in Muslim Mindanao.

He may well add: there shouldn’t be washing of hands. President Benigno Aquino III has delivered a speech distancing himself from the manner the debacle took place.

Still highly respected by his countrymen, the former president fears, as do many, that the peace process between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) will be among the casualties of the Mamasapano massacre.

In the night of last 24 January 392 policemen of the Special Action Force (SAF) entered Mamasapano to serve an arrest warrant to two terrorists: Zulkifli bin Hir alias Marwan, a Malaysian, and Abdulbasit Usman, a Filipino. Held responsible for a series of bombings in Mindanao, both have links to Jemaah Islamiyah. Marwan figured in the Bali bombings of 2002.

Mamasapano is a stronghold of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), which broke away from the MILF because, insisting on its secessionist aims, it opposed the peace process. The government has a ceasefire agreement with the MILF but not with the BIFF.

The police claim that once inside Mamasapano, the SAF killed Marwan in the instant shootout with the BIFF, but Usman escaped. As the SAF withdrew from the site, they were surrounded by MILF regulars. In the ensuing “mis-encounter” the SAF blocking team was wiped out.

The 6th Infantry Division of the Philippine Army is based just a few kilometers away, but they couldn’t help much because apparently they were notified of the operation when the SAF was already under attack. So secret was the operation that even the secretary of the interior and the acting chief of national police weren’t informed of it beforehand.

The more I look at the reportage on the “mis-encounter” the more I’m convinced it’s a bungled copycat of Operation Neptune Spear, the US Navy seals’ surgical strike that got Osama bin Laden. Marwan, with a $5 million prize on his head, has become the poor man’s Osama bin Laden.

According to an unnamed police general, the entire operation was directly supervised by suspended national police chief Alan Purisima. He ran operations “incognito” from national police headquarters, reporting only to President Aquino and Executive Secretary Francisco Ochoa, although he was serving a preventive suspension on charges of graft.

Aquino flew to Zamboanga City on the day before the “mis-encounter,” so that, according to the police general, he’d be nearby to receive the captured Marwan and Usman, assuming the operation would be successful. Well, “the best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley.”

The important thing now is that the peace process survives. Last week government and MILF negotiators met in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and agreed on the details of the decommissioning of MILF arms and forces once the BBL is in effect.

The government should indeed ensure the passage of the BBL, but the legislative process must not be rushed. The Aquino-dominated Congress must see to it that once passed and implemented, the law will survive the inevitable constitutional challenge. It’s much more sensible to amend a bill to fit the constitution than to amend the constitution to accommodate a defective law.

For if the BBL became law only to be struck down by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional, peace in Muslim Mindanao would recede even farther out of reach.

The long list of casualties, which now includes the 44 policemen who died in Mamasapano, could grow much longer.

By Jamil Maidan Flores Posted in El Indio

The Pope, the Pill and the Population Explosion

The poor have but a few things in life. But at least they have Pope Francis.

He gives them hope, encouragement and, now and then, a turn of phrase that draws good-natured laughter. When he visited the Philippines earlier this month, he met a Filipino woman who had risked her life to bring forth seven children, all by caesarian section. She got a papal scolding.

Just because God gave you the right to bear children, he said, that doesn’t means you should go for broke in exercising that right. “Some people think,” he said, “that—excuse my expression here—that in order to be good Catholics we have to be like rabbits. No. Parenthood is about being responsible.”

In a world where the rich get richer and the poor get children, who can argue against that? But I’ve read somewhere that rabbit farmers in Germany are incensed by the Pope’s remarks. “What does he have against rabbits?” they ask. “Rabbits don’t breed like rabbits. Only people do that.”

Actually the Pope has resurrected an ancient notion that Catholic families must be big families—because they resort only to the rhythm method of contraception, which doesn’t work. It’s not called “Vatican roulette” for nothing.

In the same vein, here’s another papal story, one told to me by a Chicago-based journalist: when Pope John Paul II visited the US in 1979, he dropped in on a hospital to comfort the sick. He came upon a man lying in a hospital bed, with his wife attending to him, and a bunch of frisky young children, obviously their progenies, swarming around them. The pope began to praise them for keeping faith with catholic family values.

“I’m sorry, Holy Father,” the man interrupted him, “but we’re not Catholics. We’re just sexy Protestants.”

That story should remind us that population growth is not just a matter of government policy, nor is it just about the teachings of a religion. It’s also about sex. To be exact, sex as recreation.

There’s a great deal of anecdotal evidence to show that when a poor family saves enough money to buy a television set, the production of babies in the family radically slows down. That’s especially true when a tearjerker of a telenovela is on prime time, after dinner.

On the other hand, poor families that have no visible means of entertaining themselves in the restiveness of tropical evenings, well, they just keep on producing children. Procreation is their only recreation.

Apart from that, some families see a large brood as the solution to rather than the cause of an economic problem. This is often the case of small farmers in rural societies, where it’s not unusual for a peasant family to have as many as ten children.

The more children a man has, the more help is available to him as he tills his small farm. Try convincing the man that he’s got it wrong and he’ll laugh in your face.

The payback comes when the ten children grow up and they have children of their own. The farm can no longer feed all the mouths in the much-extended family. Some of the children will have to go out into the world, very likely to some city. Having done nothing but farm all their lives, they aren’t fit for jobs that pay decent wages. Some resort to petty crime. They all become part of a huge social problem.

The Pope is right when he says people should exercise their right to reproduce with a sense of responsibility. But to do that, they need to be equipped with more than the Vatican roulette.

Partly because he says the cutest things, many women all over the world love the Pope. But they take the pill.

By Jamil Maidan Flores Posted in El Indio

A Stronger Global InterMedia Dialogue

The power of slogans is awesome. “I am Charlie Hebdo” is one powerful slogan that will be around a long time.

As a condemnation of terror and violence, and as an upholding of the freedom of expression, it’s robust. As a tribute to the courage of the cartoonists and editors who died exercising that freedom in spite of threats to their lives, it’s fitting. As an affirmation of our common humanity with all the victims of the Paris killings—journalists, police officers and Jews—it tugs at the heartstrings.

But slogans don’t solve problems. And I won’t join in the chanting of it, as that could be mistaken for approval of the magazine’s slanderous message.

In the exercise of freedom of expression, content matters. So does social context. If you depict the Prophet of Islam as having exaggerated Middle Eastern facial features at a time when Muslims in Europe are being marginalized by a spread of nativist sentiments, you are spawning social conflict.

I still say no to censorship. No to prior restraints. But once a publication has exercised freedom of expression, it must be answerable for any harm that its message has inflicted on any individual or society. And if there are valid grievances against that message, the state must provide avenues for redress.

Hence, wise libel laws are needed. And the state must regulate with wisdom. Where do you get that wisdom? Not from a slogan.

Driven by a slogan rather than by pragmatism, interior ministers of the European Union have called on Internet providers to strike out content that incite hatred and terror. The French government has arrested dozens of people for hate speech on the web, including a popular anti-Semitic comedian. The British government wants Internet companies to let intelligence operatives eavesdrop on the conversation of service users.

Unfortunately, as a New York Times editorial has noted, policy-makers don’t know a damn thing about how the Internet works, so their half-baked measures will end up mangling civil liberties without protecting the citizenry.

To get the wisdom to craft effective measures for safeguarding freedom of expression while preventing its abuse, you’ve to go for dialogue. A dialogue that involves policy-makers, media practitioners (especially Internet service providers) and religious leaders who represent communities often adversely affected by media content.

There once was a useful forum on media content and on how to avoid the kind of tumult caused by the so-called “Muhammad cartoons crisis of 2006.” This was the Global InterMedia Dialogue (GIMD) organized by the governments of Indonesia and Norway in response to that crisis.

Held alternately in Bali and Oslo between 2006 and 2008, it brought together, at one time, some 130 highly reputed media practitioners from 67 countries to engage in cross-cultural dialogue to promote freedom of expression, mutual understanding and diversity.

Strangely to me, the two governments merely facilitated the exchange of views among the media practitioners without engaging in the dialogue themselves.

In the aftermath of the Paris killings, it’s urgent that something like the GIMD should be organized again. But this time, policy-makers and religious leaders should take part as strongly as the media practitioners in the actual dialogue. The media practitioners involved in the dialogue should include Internet service providers.

The aim should be to craft practical measures that will promote freedom of expression while protecting the citizenry from the impact of hate messages in all media. The agreed measures should be acceptable to all concerned.

It would greatly help if governments stopped thinking of hate speech in mass media as solely a security problem. It’s also a problem of social justice, of how to serve both civil liberties and the human rights of religious communities.

It’s a problem you can’t solve on a wing and a slogan.

By Jamil Maidan Flores Posted in El Indio

The Paris Killings: Who Are the Real Heroes of Press Freedom?

In the wake of the terrorist assault last week on the offices of the French magazine “Charlie Hebdo,” in which 12 persons were killed, many people all over the world were moved to say, in an outpouring of anger at the perpetrators and sympathy for the victims, “I am Charlie.”

Apart from two police officers, who were slain as they responded to the attack, the victims were cartoonists and editors marked for death by Muslim extremists because of their slanderous depiction of the Prophet of Islam in past issues of the magazine.

Before the bloody week was over, the youngest of the terrorists had surrendered to the police. Three terrorists had been killed in two simultaneous shootouts with the police, after they had gunned down a policewoman and at least four more civilians.

What can you make of all that gore?

Speaking right after the Charlie Hebdo attack, US President Barack Obama called it “an attack on journalists.. (and) underscores the degree to which these terrorists fear freedom—of speech and of the press. But… a universal belief in the freedom of expression is something that can’t be silenced because of the senseless violence of the few.”

French President Francois Hollande also described the Charlie Hebdo killings as “an attack on freedom.”

Vienna-based Dr. Anis Bajrektarevic, professor in international law and global politics, saw the attack as a demonstration of Islamofascism. “That these individuals are allegedly of Arab-Muslim origin does not make them less fascists, less European, nor does it (absolve) Europe… of responsibility.” He lamented that Europe had not listened to voices calling for moderation and dialogue.

A group of French imams, joined by the Vatican Council for Interreligious Dialogue, condemned the attack and called for “responsible media to provide information that is respectful of religions, their followers and their practices, thus fostering a culture of encounter.” They also expressed compassion for the victims and their families.

That’s the way to go. Like the imams and the cardinals I condemn the slaughter of civilians and peace officers and feel compassion for all the victims and their families.

But I can’t say, “I am Charlie Hebdo.” That would be a travesty of the work of Steven Sotloff and James Foley, the journalists beheaded last year by the Islamic State. Sotloff, Foley and the many journalists all over the world who lost their lives speaking truth to power—those are the real heroes of freedom of expression.

Can’t Charlie Hebdo be justified as satire? I know what satire is. It’s the socially valuable art of exposing the pompous to ridicule. My own favorite object of satire is Kim Jong-un, the North Korean strongman. But I’ll never portray him in pornographic terms. That would garble the social message.

Charlie Hebdo depicting Catholic nuns masturbating, the Pope wearing a condom and the Prophet of Islam in unspeakable poses isn’t satire. It’s malicious slander that should be legally actionable in any democratic society.

I’m not for censorship. I’m against prior restraints. A magazine should be free to publish anything it wishes. But once it publishes malicious slander, there should be laws that would teach it to respect the rights and sensibilities of others.

Without wise laws on slander, we play into the hands of terrorists. There’s nothing they love more than the kind of grievance that magazines like Charlie Hebdo generously provides them. It gives them an excuse to wreak violence on those they hate.

The violence triggers a backlash: the state and the majority population crack down on the Muslim community—multiplying the grievance a thousand times and deepening the sense of alienation among Muslims.

That, in turn, swells the ranks of new recruits for the Islamic State. Without wise laws on slander, that’s how the cookie of communal peace crumbles.

By Jamil Maidan Flores Posted in El Indio

Afghanistan: No End to War and to Asylum-seeking

Days ago the United States and the NATO officially brought down the curtains on the 13 year old war in Afghanistan. Officially. Actually, nothing’s over till the fat lady sings. And there’s no script that says when she’ll sing in Afghanistan.

But there were speeches in muted rites of closure. US Gen. John Campbell, commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), the UN-authorized coalition to help Afghanistan, said: “We have lifted the people out of the darkness of despair and given them hope for the future… You have made Afghanistan stronger and our countries safer.”

Great speech. But he knows too well that the Taliban is alive and killing. Always on the lookout for targets of opportunity, it can inflict massive carnage. It can still host operatives of foreign terrorist organizations.

And if the new government in Kabul commits the mistakes that the erstwhile Maliki government made in Iraq, the Taliban can, with the help of powerful allies, sweep across the country a la ISIS and knock at the gates of the capital.

To be sure, hardly anybody wins this kind of war any more. It’s too asymmetrical for the stronger side to score an absolute victory. All the other side needs to do is survive and threaten.

Even if you wipe out the Taliban, you don’t necessarily erase the possibility of a future incarnation. Or ensure against the rise of new players who will more fiercely take up the battle.

The US invaded Afghanistan to get Osama bin Laden. US Navy Seals killed him in May 2012—in Pakistan. But Al Qaida didn’t die with him. It metastasized, grew new tentacles, and multiplied.

On the positive side, the US and the new Afghan government may have learned the hard lessons of Iraq. Thus the Kabul government promptly signed security deals with the US and NATO, so that the drawdown of their troops won’t create a vacuum. The 12,500 military advisers and trainors who stay to train and support the Afghan army can make a difference if and when the Taliban attempts a blitz.

If the Afghan national army becomes an effective fighting force that’s inoculated against the infections of politics, nepotism and corruption, it should hold its ground and take over the brunt of fighting the Taliban from the scattered, poorly supplied police force.

But much depends on the performance of the new Afghan government under President Ashraf Ghani: will it deliver good governance? Will it improve on the lackluster performance of its predecessor administration?

Or will it be like the quondam Maliki government in Iraq: ethnically divisive, politically inept, reputedly corrupt and obviously incompetent? In that case no amount of foreign military advice and aid will prevent the Afghan national army from collapsing at the feet of a charging Taliban.

If the new Afghan administration makes good, Indonesia should be cheering. For more than three decades now, embattled Afghanistan has been the world’s biggest producer of asylum seekers. While most of them find their way to Pakistan and Iran, still a great many aim for Australia and make use of Indonesia as country of transit.

This creates social problems for both Indonesia and Australia, and sometimes wounds their bilateral relations.

Last November, Indonesia’s minister for law and human rights, Yasonna Laoly, lamented that by cutting its intake of refugees, Australia had burdened Indonesia with the problem of looking after thousands of asylum seekers—many of them Afghans.

Meanwhile the war in Afghanistan hasn’t ended. It has only evolved. The Afghans haven’t been lifted “from the darkness of despair.” Especially if the new government doesn’t do well, asylum seekers will keep pouring out of the country—into a new life elsewhere or into another darkness.

By Jamil Maidan Flores Posted in El Indio