Habier Malik all set for final battle?
MANILA, Philippines – Three days ago, text messages started circulating about a supposed plan by Moro National Liberation Front commander Ustadz Habier Malik, the man leading the Zamboanga City standoff, and his followers to stage a final battle against government troops.
The text messages indicate that Malik will mount his final offensive after prayers on Friday, September 27. The warnings remain unconfirmed. But they're not surprising. After all, Malik has repeatedly said he's ready to die for his cause.
The repercussions of these messages were one of the concerns brought up in a roundtable discussion organized by the Philippine Center for Islam and Democracy (PCID) Thursday, September 26, as the Zamboanga standoff reached Day 18.
Mindanao civil society and religious leaders warned the government against the deeper backlash of taking on Malik in a final military showdown.
"The worst possible scenario for us is if Ustadz Habier Malik dies a martyr's death," said PCID Director Amina Rasul Bernardo.
Should Malik die in the event of a "final battle," Prof Alih S. Aiyub said his followers could play up his death as a form of martyrdom to gain sympathy from younger, more radical Muslims.
"We want to condition the mind of the people that we don't want this to happen and we have to prevent this because they can re-package the message," said Aiyub, who is also the secretary general of the National Ulama Conference of the Philippines.
"In Moro culture, this will give others the inspiration to continue the fight. If this happens, it could escalate into other areas. And we can't discount the fact that other groups, young radical people, could make this their battlecry," Aiyub added.
Despite the negative publicity surrounding the Zamboanga siege, Malik, as well as the Misuari-led MNLF faction, continues to gain a considerable following in parts of Mindanao, according to Rommel Banlaoi, executive director of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism.
"My point is Habier Malik is now being mystified and his mystification can generate a new type of movement, coming from what happened as a result of the Zamboanga siege," Banlaoi said.
The military also knows this all too well.
On Day 12 of the Zamboanga siege, security forces said Malik's troops were down to about 30 and 40 men.
But instead of launching a full military assault, the government has chosen to reach out to Malik and his followers in areas where they are believed to be hiding by playing Tausug music interspersed with an appeal from an ulama for the fighters to lay down their arms.
Lt Col Harold Cabunoc said the military is not at war with its own people.
"Hindi po namin hangad na talagang patayin si Ustadz Habier Malik. Ika nga, kapatid natin. Bibigyan siya ng pagkakataon na magpaliwanag." (We do not intend to kill Ustadz Habier Malik. As they say, he is our brother, let's give him a chance to explain.)
Is there time for an alternative approach?
Aiyub said the government must keep its mind open to taking a humanitarian approach even as the military operations in the city draw to a close. One option could be to provide a safe passage to Malik and his troops.
"Release the hostages first so there is good gesture on the part of Malik. Give them a chance for safe passage then let the government file a case against him. The military can then chase him in Sulu, if they wish, but in the mountains where civilians are not affected," Aiyub said.
It was the same mechanism that ended the Cabatangan siege in 2001. Aiyub has been proposing this option to the government since the first week of the Zamboanga standoff.
But Zamboanga City Mayor Isabelle "Beng" Climaco's position is clear: Zamboanga does not want a repeat of the Cabatangan siege and the way it ended.
Isn't it too late for a humanitarian intervention?
"From the military point of view, it's too late," Aiyub said. "But when you consider the psychological effect, the repercussions, the backlash, that's something that we should think about."
Banlaoi cites how different the MNLF "peace rallies" in Davao and Zamboanga turned out to be.
"[Davao] Mayor [Rodrigo] Duterte said, 'I don't mind the MNLF proclaiming Davao City as the capital of the Bangsamoro Republik, anyway, it's not yet happening. He said, 'I don't mind them raising the flag of the Bangsamoro Republik. Just place it below the Philippine flag and remove it after 5 o-clock. Thirdly, I don't mind you rallying there as long as you don't display your mortars and RPGs. So the rally was done and ended peacefully without any trouble," Banlaoi said.
"In Zamboanga city, the mindset is different. If it's Nur Misuari, 'I'm threatened by any kind of activity, political, social, we're threatened.' So perception matters," Banlaoi said.
Former Marine General Benjamin Dolorfino, who was also held hostage by Malik's group in 2007, said the government made the mistake of taking the military option right away before exhausting peaceful means to end it.
"If it was a simple hostage situation, the first step in resolving it would be to contain the area so the hostage taker would not be able to escape then negotiation would follow," Dolorfino said. "But the approach in Zamboanga should have been different. There should have been a negotiation first so that there will be a peaceful way out. Hindi yung attack agad, calibrated approach."
'Continue tripartite review'
In a situation where people on the ground are questioning the relevance of the ongoing peace processes of government with the MNLF and its rival group, Moro Islamic Liberation Front, lawyer Benedicto Bacani said the government must be open to the idea of expanding the tripartite review with the MNLF beyond just tackling the technicalities of amending the 1996 peace pact.
"Expand the tripartite and really look at the welfare of these people," said Bacani, executive director of the Institute for Autonomy and Governance. "They're saying the Zamboanga siege should not affect the peace process. But people are asking: 'When will the peace process have an effect in my life?"
In an earlier interivew, Undersecretary Joe Lorena of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process said the next round of the tripartite review between the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, the government and the MNLF is expected to be held in November.
Lorena said the talks will continue because the Misuari faction is only one group in the MNLF, and the government cannot discount the other members. - Rappler.com