March 27 will mark the first anniversary of a Malaysia-brokered peace settlement between Manila and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) rebel group. But the long-sought peace could be in jeopardy due to fallout from a raid by government forces on Mindanao seven weeks ago that went terribly wrong.
"Trust has been affected," Al Haj Ebrahim Murad, the rebel group’s chairman, told Reuters in an interview published Saturday, referring to the effect of the Jan. 25 raid in a rebel-controlled area on the southern Philippine peace process.
Under the peace agreement and accompanying ceasefire, MILF agreed to lay down its arms in exchange for formation of a southern autonomous region that would hold local elections by mid-2016. The rebel group has been fighting since the 1970s for autonomy for the predominantly Muslim Bangsamoro people of the southern Philippines.
The raid may also have set back a potential alliance between Manila and the MILF in governmental efforts to shore up a southern front against extremists.
Following the signing of the peace accord, MILF last year formally condemned the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group. Two other southern Philippine rebel groups – The Abu Sayyaf Group and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) – both have pledged allegiance to IS.
Bad day at Mamasapano
The ceasefire was supposed to be in place on Jan. 25, when Special Action Force (SAF) police commandos swooped into Mamasapano, Maguidano province, in pursuit of one of the world’s most wanted terrorists, Zulkifli bin Hir, a Malaysian fugitive and main suspect in the 2002 Bali bombings. The U.S. government has a $5 million bounty on his head.
The Philippine government claims that its forces killed Marwan early during the raid, but the FBI has yet to confirm through lab testing on a DNA sample taken from the scene that he is dead.
The raid, however, culminated in disaster for both the government and MILF.
The commandos wound up being caught in a battle with rebels from different Moro factions, including MILF. Forty-four SAF commandos and at least 17 MILF fighters died in the firefight.
MILF officials have since accused the government of violating the terms of the ceasefire and of not alerting their side ahead of time about the operation, according to news reports.
MILF claims that its forces were attacked and acting in self-defense when the fighting broke out.
"We are studying to see if the approval of the police operation came from the highest level of government," Murad told Reuters.
Yet, the MILF leader added, the rebels were not backing away from the peace process and would keep working with Manila, even if there was a change of government with presidential elections set for May 9, 2016.
Who’s to blame?
The order, in fact, came from Philippine President Benigno Aquino III, according to a report released last week by a police Board of Inquiry (BOI) that faulted the commander-in-chief for the botched raid.
For his part, Aquino said in a recent speech that he had authorized the operation, but he blamed Getulio Napenas, head of the police’s SAF unit, for giving him wrong information about the operation and for bungling its execution.
On Saturday, presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda criticized the BOI report, saying it was full of innuendo and speculation, Reuters reported.
Police investigators did not interview the president about his role in the covert operation to get Marwan, according to Lacierda.
"We must, therefore, separate the facts from potentially hastily-made conclusions and opinions," Lacierda said in a statement.
"The Board of Inquiry (BOI) should have allowed the facts to speak for themselves. The BOI in its efforts could have asked the president to clarify matters. The president would have answered any questions they may have had," he said.
The crisis, nonetheless, is shaping up as the worst of Aquino’s presidency.
He is facing calls to resign over his decision that led to the worst single-day battlefield loss for Philippine forces since the Moro rebellion broke out in the 1970s.
Meanwhile, angry Filipino lawmakers have suspended debate over a congressional bill that proposes self-rule for the Moro region and on which the peace deal hinges, AFP reported.
MILF report due out
The Moro Islamic Liberation Front has launched its own probe into the events that unfolded at Mamasapano on Jan. 25, and is expected to issue its findings this week.
However, according to news reports from the region, the rebel group won’t be handing a copy of its findings directly to the Philippine government.
Reports Saturday conflicted as to whether MILF would submit its report to the Malaysian government or send it to Kuala Lumpur indirectly through the International Monitoring Team, a multi-national U.N. peacekeeping group deployed to the southern Philippines.
"That, to me, is not really a good move in connection with the peace process," InterAksyon.com quoted retired Lt. Gen. Edilberto Adan, chairman of the Association of Generals and Flag Officers (AGFO), as saying.
"While there is a third party facilitator, the Malaysian government, the MILF, to show good faith and that they recognize the authority of the Philippine government, they should submit their report to our government."