READER’S POST | By BORIS C. LUNA
President Benigno S. Aquino III has spoken out against conspirators as the ones at fault in the violence in Sabah. He has threatened to charge Jamalul Kiram, pretender to the throne of the defunct Sultanate of Sulu, for his actions that caused his followers to invade Sabah to assert the ancient claim of his family to the vast territory.
But is it really about the Kirams? Is it about the claim to Sabah? Is it about Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo? Or is this incident merely a product of the traditional myopia of successive Philippine administrations, sacrificing long-term perspective for political expediency in developing policy?
Peace framework for continued violence
The government of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo has sought peace with the MILF as one of its cornerstone policies. To this end, it signed a Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domains with the MILF that served as the capitulation of the Philippine government to demands of the MILF to autonomy. This agreement was struck down by the Supreme Court, and thus President Aquino was able to present the 2012 Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro as his own legacy of peace in Mindanao.
This policy followed by two successive governments, and the Ramos government before them, was a vindication of the method of armed rebellion chosen by the MILF as its instrument of forcing policy change in the government. It was incongruous that the government chose to accede to peace talks when the stated goal of the MILF was not independence, but rather a substate. That is rather unusual for an armed rebel group, who usually ask for independence and then concede to autonomy. Given that they already demanded autonomy, then it means that the MILF conceded recognition of the legal mandate of the government of the Philippines over the lands they claim and thus its subordination to Philippine laws. Even criminals who do not bother themselves to think of the legal mandate of the government are still prosecuted and then incarcerated, so why didn’t the government respond to MILF acts of violence with vigorous police action?
Even more curious, the government can recognize their grievances by simply encouraging them to participate in the ARMM elections. The ARMM has enough power to change its own system if the MILF’s endorsed candidates can win and implement their proposals within the already existing framework. The fact that the government entered into peace talks with the MILF and then decided to reorganize the autonomy of Muslim Mindanao based on these talks has shown a picture of government concession to violence. Even worse, it was the government agreeing that its own laws and structures, built with legitimacy derived from elections and plebiscites, are insufficient and can be changed only with violent action against such institutions.
This framework also nullified the loyalty shown by many Muslim Filipinos who did not participate in the MILF revolt. They fought with the Republic against the rebels, but ultimately they would live under a government crafted to the wishes of the rebels. This does not count the thousands of Filipino soldiers who died in defense of the same Republic, even as the MILF continued to flout its immunity from laws that bound all other citizens, such as the incident in Al-Barka. The framework’s contents might be valid, but their validity becomes irrelevant when the Constitution remained in force, and it was not respected by either the government or the MILF. Force has won over the law.
But then again, the 2012 Framework Agreement requires the MILF to participate in the electoral process. Does it not nullify the objections raised above? The answer is no. It might require voter approval, but then again the government has already shown its support for the MILF position. What happens if voters reject the framework agreement? Does the MILF go back to the hills? If yes, then what was the reason for the peace talks to begin with? If not, then why should we let the MILF’s decision to rebel slide? Other groups take to Constitutionally protected forms of political agitation, but why is the MILF special? Why are they getting away with violating the Constitution?
Incomprehensibly, even if the argument boiled down to force, there was no reason for the government to concede. Erap has proven that the AFP can defeat the MILF. The fact that the MILF could not even bluster for the rest of his abbreviated term showed that the power of the MILF has been broken, and it can only crumble in the face of sustained assaults from the AFP and PNP. The lull afforded by the peace talks allowed the MILF to establish camps and settlements that it was not able to win by force of arms. And they immediately showed their contempt for Philippine laws inside those enclaves.
As violence continued, the MILF claimed “lost commands” when it suited them to deny responsibility. Given that they cannot control their own troops, or at least they cannot guarantee complete peace even after all concessions granted by the government, there was no reason to sign the framework, but sign the government did.
And so at the end of the day, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front had its way. By exploiting talk of peace, it was able to gain government support for enforcing their way of life on people who never voted for them, in territories they could never win by force of arms. And those who remained loyal to the government and the democratic process looked on.
The Kiram Dynasty
The Kiram Dynasty once ruled over Sulu, Palawan, Tawi-Tawi, Sabah, and various other islands that comprised the Sultanate of Sulu. The Sultan of Sulu’s warriors plundered coastal villages under the rule of Spain, carting off slaves to be sold in the slave markets of Borneo.
But as time passed by, the Sultanate’s fortunes began to wane. Battered by continuous wars, the Sultan had to submit to the King of Spain in 1881, and to the Americans in 1916. To his credit, the Sultan became a Filipino, never again challenging the authority of the Americans of the Philippine Republic. Indeed, one of his kin was a member of the 1935 Constitutional Commission.
But now, Jamalul Kiram III saw himself becoming sidelined in Mindanao affairs. Although the Sultan of Sulu hasn’t mattered that much for some time, it is probable that poverty and old age is driving him to more desperate measures. The government did promise to honor the Sultan as a spiritual leader of the Moros. The government also promised to uphold and protect the claim over Sabah.
And he has become so irrelevant that even his letter to the President was not deemed worthy of the personal attention of Pnoy. Now left with the pittance that is the annual rent, and facing competing claims over the title of Sultan, he has most likely seen how the MILF, and before them, the MNLF, achieve power and respect from the government through force. And so perhaps he was approached by opposition forces from both the Philippines and Malaysia, perhaps not. But one thing is clear – he had nothing to lose from the venture and everything to gain.
As inflation continued to erode the value of the annual rent and the government continued to express indifference over the Sabah claim, he has fallen far, but can still fall some more.
It is not clear if he actually thought he can invade Sabah and win, or if it was even his intention. But what is clear is that people now consider him Sultan of Sulu and he has obviated the legitimacy of the claims of other people, if only by the standard of being referred to as sultan both in the media and private conversations. He has also succeeded in forcing the government to take another look at the Sabah claim and consider its status.
And most importantly, his letter to the President was miraculously found and read by its intended recipient. And that is what violence brought Kiram.
The post-conflict scenario
The Philippines has long had a history of revolts against the government, even after colonization. The Pulahanes revolted against the Commonwealth, there was the Huk rebellion, the NPA, the MNLF, the MILF, RAM, Kato’s Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, and recently, the Magdalo. The question is, why, given the liberal democratic tradition of this country, are revolts so frequent? It becomes even more incongruous considering that not a single one of these revolts has been successful. So many people have tried and failed, but still rebels can be found popping out every so often.
Is it the oppressive nature of the government? Perhaps, but Leftist propaganda to the contrary, the Philippine government has never reached the level of oppression seen in Myanmar, even during the Marcos dictatorship. In addition, the Armed Forces of the Philippines has generally had a successful run against these insurgents. Even in the 1980s, when the AFP had to deal with the NPA, MILF, and MNLF all at the same time while combating putschists in its own ranks, the government was not overwhelmed and engulfed. Not one of these rebellions managed to threaten the government center the way the Huks did in the late 1940s. And the Huks were still beaten off. As a disincentive to revolt, this run of success is a pretty powerful one.
Why do rebels continue to risk their lives when a revolt is unlikely to succeed and when it is easier to go to Manila and just picket government offices? It is because violence works. Kiram’s case is unique in the sense that the violence was not directed against the national government, but it is still violence that got results.
The rebels might not have achieved their stated goals, but their resort to violence was rewarded. Joma Sison continues to live in comfort in the Netherlands and can lay claim to belligerency even as the NPA has been reduced to acts of banditry in the countryside. Honasan of RAM and Trillanes of Magdalo are now Senators. Misuari of the MNLF got ARMM before he revolted against the government once more. The MILF is about to get their peace treaty. And none of them had to account for their crimes to the Filipino people.
In the future, another citizen with grievances against the government might consider what happened all this, and once more eschew legal and institutional frameworks for agitating for reforms. The government should consider the costs of seeking peace in dealing with those who use violence to circumvent the legal process.
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