The months of behind the scenes negotiations over the Autonomous Region for Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), following the signing of a peace agreement in December 2013 between the Philippines government and the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), have seen a period of relative calm. However, this all changed on 25 January 2015 when an operation to capture a number of extremists led to the deaths of over 40 Philippine National Police officers.
"Growing unease amongst separatists who rejected the peace agreement."
There had already been growing unease in the region over the agreed ARMM, particularly from around 4,000 separatists who rejected the agreement and formed a breakaway group from the MILF, known as the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF). They say that they are committed to continuing the Islam-inspired struggle for independence.
Both sides agreed to a ceasefire while the negotiators repackaged the agreement into a proposed bill that will be submitted to the two house of the legislature for approval. The bill would create a regional body called the Bangsamoro (Moro nation)which will replace the existing but ineffective ARMM.
The operation on the 25 January 2015 involved 392 commandos of the Philippine National Police (PNP) Special Action Force (SAF) who conducted a secret operation in the town of Mamasapano, Maguindanao province, on Mindanao Island in the southern Philippines.
Their targets were Zulfiki Bin Hir (who goes by the alias Marwan), a Malaysian, and Abdul Basit Usman, a Filipino; both were allegedly training members of the BIFF on how to prepare improvised explosive devices.
The operation turned into a major firefight that began early in the morning of 25 January 2015 and lasted until the afternoon. The SAF units had apparently entered a territory under the jurisdiction of the MILF 105th base command and attacked a home where Marwan was supposed to be staying. The house also happened to be that of a senior official of the MILF's 105th Base Command. Alerted that one of their commanders was being attacked MILF forces began to attack a surprised SAF.
What happened remains unclear. Some say that there were two military encounters, one between the SAF and the MILF, and another between the SAF and the BIFF. Others reported that outgunned, the SAF commandos had to retreat, only to be ambushed by BIFF forces operating on the outskirts of the MILF base. The SAF reportedly radioed for assistance from the nearby 6th Infantry Division of the army, but the army refused, its hands tied by the ceasefire agreement between the government and the MILF.
The results were 44 SAF commandos killed and 11 wounded. The MILF leadership called it a defensive engagement while top government and senior police officials admitted they knew nothing about the operation (it later turned out that this was a secret operation led by a former head of the police force, with the knowledge and approval of the President; why it was conducted remains unexplained).
There are more questions than answers even now. Military veterans of the war in the south familiar with the area have pointed out two of its recurring features:
First, that the MILF and the BIFF have strong ties, in part because their members often come from the same clan. Under pressure, the MILF has agreed to conduct an internal investigation of what happened. However, the question is whether it still has the control over its forces in the northern part of Maguindanao province, given that family ties often trump political programmes. Any attempt to impose some punitive measures on these erring commanders would likely lead to another military encounter - this time between comrades-in-arms.
Second, this part of Maguindanao province has had a long history of warfare, beginning with the Muslim-Christian wars of the late 1960s, then into the separatist wars of the 1970s. This battle zone was infamous for both sides being extremely brutal to each other. The gory pictures of soldiers who had been killed, apparently taken by BIFF members and posted on YouTube, showed that this take-no-prisoners, kill-them-all approach remains the norm. Again this was a part of the local culture the SAF officials had failed to recognise.
"This encounter may make the peace process more difficult."
In the larger scheme of things, political analysts suggest that this encounter – only the latest of military-rebel engagements in which the government suffered heavy casualties – may just make it more difficult for the peace process to move forward.
Peace advocates have argued that while horrendous and condemnable, the massacre should not distract from making the autonomous Bangsamoro a reality. However, public anger and the adroit use of the killings by opposition politicians have had a serious effect on the process.
Philippine President Benigno Aquino III delivered a speech to the nation calling for a day of mourning and promised government help the families of the killed policemen. However, the president has failed to address the questions and charges of critics.
Public pressure so far has been directed at the government and its clear mishandling of the operation, but the MILF must also account for the persistence of this camaraderie between its forces and the BIFF, especially since the latter has vowed to scuttle the peace process, and this time with the assistance of extremist bomb experts.