Thursday, November 3, 2011

Leading by slogans

Philippine President Benigno Aquino III seems to possess a lush fountainhead of ideas to run on. The president’s handlers always appear ready to prep Noynoy Aquino with a steady diet of slogans to use whenever the president needs them to show his thin veneer of leadership on issues that face the nation.

Take the recent Al-Barka skirmish in Basilan last October 18 that resulted in the death of 19 government soldiers. Pushed by many to exact revenge and launch an all-out war against the Moro rebels, which Joseph Estrada waged against the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in 2000 during his short-lived presidency, Noynoy Aquino instead chose to pursue his newest slogan of “all-out justice.”
The map of the envisioned Bangsamoro nation. Click image to view "The
Bangsamoro People,"
If there’s anything predictable about this president, it his penchant for slogans—catchwords that would encapsulate his style of decision-making and leadership. Never mind if these were empty statements, plainly symbolic or have a mere good sound bite to it. Recall that he ran for the presidency under an anti-corruption slogan: “Kung Walang Corrupt, Walang Mahirap.”

That slogan won the Public Affairs Asia’s Gold Standard Award for Political Communications outdoing the likes of Lee Kuan Yew, Minister Mentor and first Prime Minister of Singapore, and British Prime Minister David Cameron. Aquino’s award was given for his communications platform of promoting transparency and accountability.

When he was sworn in as president, Noynoy Aquino in his inaugural speech once again dug from his pocketful of fresh and timely slogans. He talked about the “righteous path” (“matuwid na daan”), sounding more like a follower of Buddhist enlightenment or even out-Mao-ing Peru's Sendero Luminoso (“Shining Path”).

Aquino also chastised members of the government officialdom for their habitual use of “wang-wang” (a retinue of cars led by blast of sirens coming from motorized cops). “No more wang-wang,” the new President admonished, as he travelled the streets of Manila sans the pomp and circumstance that hitherto used to accompany a government entourage.

Remember also Noynoy’s familiar marching order every time his cabinet is confronted with a crisis: “Do what is right,” as in Spike Lee’s movie “Do the Right Thing” or a Nike commercial.

Now, his “all-out justice” campaign to ferret out those responsible for the death of the 19 soldiers at Al-Barka.

The MILF rebels maintained that government troops entered the rebel stronghold of Al- Barka to arrest Dan Laksaw Asnawi, the second highest-ranking MILF commander in Basilan who had long been wanted by the government for kidnapping and terrorism. It was a test mission for the soldiers but fighting erupted after they entered the rebel territory of Al-Barka.

Before the Al-Barka incident, a truce was agreed between the government and the MILF while both sides negotiate for peace and end to the centuries-old Moro rebellion.

Malacañang said that it is the MILF which violated the ceasefire agreement by giving refuge to a wanted criminal. The government warned that military troops “will do their job” if the MILF refuses to surrender Asnawi.

What really is this “all-out justice” policy of the government?

To the top military brass, achieving Noynoy Aquino’s directive of “all-out justice” for the 19 soldiers slain in Al-Barka, would mean only one thing: selected and targeted strikes against the MILF. Those to be targeted are lawless elements in the MILF who have been fugitives from justice and are being coddled by the rebel group.

Deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte reminded the MILF that providing protection to lawless elements and fugitives from justice was against the ceasefire agreement between the government and the Islamic rebel group.

“We have made it clear from the onset that this is not against the MILF as an entity but against lawless elements. Either they cooperate or stand aside and let our law enforcers do their job,” Valte said in a press briefing.

And how is this possible without direct military confrontation with the rebels?

Aquino’s “all-out justice” therefore is nothing but a smokescreen for an “all-out war” strategy on the part of the government. Perhaps President Aquino is using his Roman Catholic faith as his basis for “all-out justice,” mistakenly juxtaposing it with the Church doctrine of “just war” that was crystallized by St. Augustine from principles in the Bible.

One of the seven tenets of the just war doctrine says that war must be used as a last resort. If there are other practical and more effective means of stopping the aggression, then they must be used.

Catholic Catechism also teaches us of the gravity of the decision to go to war. All of the conditions must be rigorously considered and met. It is not enough for just some of them to be met.

Let us set aside President Aquino’s Catholic upbringing and grant him the “time to kill” (Eccles. 3:3) as his handlers might justify the president’s decision from an endorsement in the Old Testament. Will Aquino’s “all-out justice” (read “all-out war”) strategy really work this time?

The Moro wars are not just some decades’ old rift between the Muslims in Southern Philippines and the central government in Manila. This conflict has been smouldering since the Spanish colonial times for four centuries up to the American pacification campaign. The Bangsamoro nation was not founded on a dream or on the whim of the Sultan of Sulu. It was drawn on specific territorial and blood lines, a distinct culture, and a separate ruling class.
The Moro Islamic Liberation Front is a separatist group that has been fighting
for an  Islamic state in the southern Philippines region of Mindanao. Photo by
 Mark Navales/ Agence-France Presse. Click image to view "Giyera sa Mindanao
 (MILF vs. AFP)
When the Spaniards and the Americans failed to subjugate the Moros of Mindanao, Joseph Estrada was also destined to fail in his “pulverize them” all-out war strategy in 2000. Former President Gloria Arroyo had a better chance of carving peace and an end to the Moro wars but for the unconstitutionality of the Memorandum of Agreement-Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD), thanks to several legal minds of the nation and the Supreme Court. The MOA-AD was a well-thought out scheme of defining the Bangsamoro territorial scope compared with the graft-ridden, political dynasty and violence prone Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) that was contained in the 1987 Philippine Constitution.

Groups which squarely opposed the MOA-AD lambasted the agreement for attempting to dismember the country in order to create an independent and sovereign Bangsamoro state. Perhaps, nobody had yet heard the idea of sovereignty association, that it was already being touted in Quebec, although the separatists lost during the referendum. Some political scientists would also argue that the present European Union is actually a sovereignty association of a special nature.

Joseph Estrada’s all-out war in 2000 netted him the fall of MILF’s Camp Abubakar but it did not stop the war. Right after the siege, an MILF official said: “The government has captured the hive but the angry bees have escaped and are regrouping to attack.” True enough, it only animated the Moro wars.

By now, President Noynoy Aquino should realize that “all-out justice” or “all-out war,” whichever it is, will never end the Moro aspiration of an independent Bangsamoro state. An all-out war strategy against a people’s movement for self-determination never works as history reminds us. Despite America’s military might, it was never successful in Vietnam. The present conflict in Afghanistan is a repetition of the mistakes in the Vietnam War. America, just like Alexander the Great and the mighty Russian army, will never prevail in this graveyard of conquerors.

If President Aquino wants justice to prevail in the Mindanao conflict, he should stop leading the country by empty slogans or gimmickry. No more “all-out justice” when it doesn’t mean what it says. Negotiations for peace must continue and the government must be flexible and willing to discuss on the table new and sweeping modalities of relationships, even if this would entail redrawing of territorial boundaries to pacify long-standing grievances.

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