Philippines city besieged
24 Sep 2013|

Just off Zamboanga Peninsula, in happier times.The origins and purposes of the violence in the city of Zamboanga, on the Philippines southern province of Mindanao, are somewhat obscure—but the immediate effects are brutal and apparent.

The violence started on September 9 in the city of more than 800,000 people. By last Saturday there were 114 deaths, more than 300 wounded, more than 110,000 made homeless, a number of villages reduced to rubble and about a score of hostages still in the hands of a faction of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). A number of schools won’t be able to be used for three months. Philippines President Benigno Aquino III, estimated that it would cost almost A$100 million to rebuild and otherwise to care for those affected by the fighting.

Of those killed, 92 were reported to be associated with the MNLF, 12 were soldiers, three were police and seven were civilians. There had been many more hostages, some of whom were used as human shields, but many were freed by government troops and police, while others were released or escaped. The police chief of Zamboanga was reported to be among the hostages but later turned up with a bus load of MNLF members who, he said, had surrendered and hadn’t wanted to take part in the fighting. The brutality wasn’t all on the side the MNLF: Human Rights Watch reported instances of torture by the military. Human Rights Watch also reported that some of those used as human shields by MNLF forces were Christians.

Various newspaper reports gave different accounts of the origins. Although the violence clearly began on September 9, some accounts said that it began when MNLF fighters stormed coastal villages, while others said that it was the intention of the MNLF to hoist their flag on the municipal building. One report said that the MNLF had come to conduct an election campaign and found soldiers waiting for them, leading to fighting. Possibly lending weight to that explanation is an Army statement that it had had intelligence reports of the MNLF move.

But it stretches credibility that the MNLF faction—it isn’t the whole of the MNLF but a faction led by Nur Misuari, the founder of the MNLF and who worked as governor of the a Moro area for a while—could have put up such a sustained attack if caught by surprise. President Aquino has asked one important question: why those 40 or so fighters still engaging government forces aren’t running out of ammunition. The MNLF forces have mortars among their weaponry and released hostages said that the MNLF had medical equipment and knew the houses where ammunition was stored. All of this points to a well-planned operation.

A second question is whose interests the attack is serving. The most common assumption is that Nur Misuari wanted to assert himself because he saw the Philippines Government by-passing the MNLF as it sought to bring peace to Mindanao and to convert some of the province into a new entity called Bangsamoro, thereby giving effect to a Muslim demand for autonomy. Misuari appears to believe that the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which broke away from the MLNF in 1976, now has the ear of the government and that the MLNF has been sidelined.

The government denies shutting the MNLF out of negotiations and a spokesman said that it had difficulty understanding what Nur Misuari wanted.

The wider question, however, is how the attack was financed. The faction that mounted it doesn’t have the resources, so there’s some reason to believe that opponents of the whole process of Bangsamoro may have been behind it. It’ll be interesting to see whether anything comes to light on that point as investigations continue.

The tragedy undoubtedly has been a major setback for President Aquino’s hopes of bringing peace to the Muslim south by the end of his term in 2016. As Commander in Chief he has taken control of the military operations in Zamboanga. But he’s taken great care to make it clear that it was only the Nur Misuari faction of the MNLF who conducted the attack, so it’s probably a bit sweeping to argue that the MNLF as a whole has lost credibility and standing in the Philippines Government’s peace plans for Mindanao.

The fact that one faction of the MNLF could disrupt and destroy large areas of a major city of the Philippines has raised huge questions for the residents of Zamboanga, and the implications won’t be missed by other Filipinos. No doubt President Aquino will argue that it makes his peace plan the more urgent. But for Filipinos, it’ll make scrutiny of the plan and scrutiny of the effectiveness of the country’s military forces a priority.

Stuart McMillan is an adjunct senior fellow in the school of social and political sciences at the University of Canterbury. Image courtesy of Flickr user Eugene.