Rumors of a coup plot against President Benigno Aquino III spread in mobile text messages last week. One text message called for “brave and national young officers to arrest Aquino and some generals for betraying the constitution through peace talks with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.”
The Armed Forces of the Philippines consequently denied the rumors and said these were all baseless. Many observers however say speculations emerged as President Aquino tries to satisfy the demands of the Philippine Army seeking tougher action against MILF while maintaining peace negotiations with the Muslim rebels.
Aquino earlier rejected calls for an all-out war against the MILF, which had earlier admitted responsibility for the death of 19 Special Forces troops in an encounter at Al-Barka, Basilan last October 18. In a command conference two weeks ago, he said there could have been lapses on the part of the military.
Former President Joseph Estrada, his son, Sen. Jinggoy Estrada, and Sen. Panfilo Lacson have all urged the President to declare an all-out war against the MILF. Estrada said his administration was able to capture the main MILF headquarters Camp Abubakar, along with 13 major and 43 minor camps, when he declared an all out war against the MILF in 2000.
Former President Fidel Ramos however said an all-out war is not the solution to the problem in Mindanao. He said 1 million Filipinos were displaced and became internal refugees in Mindanao during Estrada’s war against the MILF.
Instead of an all-out war, the Palace announced an “all-out justice” against the “lawless elements.” Communications Secretary Ricky Carandang said the government will continue to hunt down the lawless elements and that it expects the MILF to cooperate in the effort.
Last October 24, the military launched air strikes over Zamboanga Sibugay, killing at least 6 MILF rebels and two soldiers. At the same time, Interior and Local Government Secretary Jesse Robredo called on the MILF to surrender their rogue members involved in the attacks against government troops.
Robredo said the MILF must surrender its alleged rogue members as a sign of good faith. Insinuations that Aquino might be soft on the MILF have emerged as media highlighted the Palace’s PhP5 million endowment for the establishment of the Bangsamoro Leadership and Management Institute (BLMI). Malacanang had to defend the move, saying the project had already been agreed upon during the Arroyo administration.
Presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda said the financial grant is part of the commitment of government to the peace process and training of future Bangsamoro leaders. Lacierda also dismissed reported comments that President Aquino may have committed an impeachable offense when the peace panel handed the check to the MILF.
“This is not for armed conflict but primarily for political and socio-economic development. So let’s be clear with that. There’s no betrayal of public trust. There’s no treason here and I think you should go back and look at what the definition of treason is under the Revised Penal Code,” he said.
Peace advocates and human rights groups are worried Aquino might feel the pressure and abandon peace efforts. They fear a repeat of the recent conflicts, which displaced more than a million people for about a year.
The interfaith human rights group Moro-Christian People’s Alliance (MCPA) warned of a humanitarian crisis if the army offensive escalated. “President Aquino’s all-out justice operations have all the characteristics of an all-out war,” alliance spokesman Antonio Liongson said.
Last August, Aquino met with MILF Chairman Al Haj Murad Ibrahim in Tokyo to resuscitate peace negotiations but optimism faded after rebels rejected Manila’s autonomy offer and insisted on creating a Muslim sub-state.
President Aquino is walking on a tightrope as he tries to preserve the peace process and at the same time seek justice for the fallen soldiers. While an all-out war and an all-out justice are essentially different, the effects of the two are the same: diminishing confidence between the two sides and internally displaced people due to violent encounters and (mis) encounters.
As of last week, the National Disaster and Risk Reduction Management Council has estimated that a little less than 20,000 people have been displaced by the military offensive. Although an all-out war will surely result to more war refugees, “all-out justice” would still affect selected targets though ensuring that the peace process won’t be scuttled. The duration of the offensive is short, as long as the selected target are not yet defeated.
It is important to note how the President can consolidate his government and at the same time forge a peace deal with the Muslim rebels.