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    Winning the peace

Christmas day last year was marred by a blast that rocked a church in a military camp in Jolo, Sulu. As explosions go that one was relatively small, strong enough only to injure ten people and not actually kill anyone. But what it lacked in explosive power it more than made up for in propaganda: the attackers may not have succeeded in killing anyone, but they hit their target nonetheless by embarrassing the military right in its own territory. Planting a bomb inside a supposedly secure camp and exploding it in the most important festival of the year was a coup that will serve the attackers well with its funders.

The attack was immediately blamed on the Abu Sayyaf, a group of bandits with supposed ties to Osam Bin-Laden’s Al Qaeda network, and there is no reason to doubt this. The group has a long history of abuses and atrocities over a period of two decades, and the Christmas day attack, while not deadly, obviously added to the air of invincibility it has worked hard to create about itself. And why not? It’s been two decades since its creation, and the Abu Sayyaf is still going strong. Not bad for a band that government has always described as “small.”

The problem has already survived three presidents and is now on its fourth; each past leader had promised to wipe the group out and even gave deadlines for the military to do it, but each has failed miserably. Former President Gloria Arroyo has the distinction of giving the most number of deadlines, but each time frame passed without a hint of the group’s ultimate demise. It was as if the military did not want to act on the order of the commander-in-chief, an observation shared by many stakeholders who have fumed at the inability of the authorities to handle the problem.

It remains to be seen if President Benigno Aquino III will finally break the barrier and see to the destruction of a group that has caused so much misery not just on individual victims but on the entire nation as a whole. For with each kidnapping, bombing, assassination, and downright banditry, the Abu Sayyaf succeeds in giving the entire Philippines a bad name. As 2011 begins, let us hope that a new leadership will truly resolve to get to the bottom of the problem and end two decades of terrorism that has taken our country hostage to the whims of a few evil men.

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President Aquino revealed his administration’s counter-insurgency strategy during the 75th founding anniversary of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) last December 21, and he put forward a plan in which the focus is human rights and not fighting per se. The old Oplan Bantay Laya, now infamous for the alleged abuses it gave rise to during the Arroyo administration, will give way to Bayanihan, or more formally, the Internal Peace and Security Program (IPSP), and it will supposedly instill in the soldiers the need to protect the people they serve and not put them in harm’s way.

It is interesting that in giving a preview of the new strategy, the AFP is tacitly admitting to its mistakes in dealing with the insurgency. AFP chief of staff General Ricardo David said instead of violating human rights, the soldiers should be their protectors – an almost imperceptible nod to the fact that violations had indeed been made in the past, and that these need to be corrected. Oplan Bantay Laya, in particular, has been blamed for a host of atrocities, including harassment of people in the hinterlands and even extra-judicial killing of those who have been vocal about their criticism of the previous administration. Indeed, when government declares war on an enemy, what can be expected but casualties on all sides?

It is hoped that Bayanihan would live up to its name: that is, that all stakeholders would take part in the effort to solve the insurgency problem. As critics of the AFP have correctly pointed out, rebellion needs to be addressed at its root, which is poverty and social injustice. The troops must be lauded for doing their best to follow the orders of their higher-ups, but in the end it is not in fighting that this war can be won. President Aquino has the correct vision: it is the peace that must be won, and victory can be achieved by placing the welfare of the people on top of the priority list. By doing so, government removes the very reason that the insurgency exists in the first place – and then there would be no more reason for anyone to fight.

Jon Joaquin is the managing editor of the largest circulation newspaper in Mindanao, the Mindanao Daily Mirror in Davao City.

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