5 months after, Zambo crisis haunts OPAPP

The Senate holds a hearing to look into the 'true cause' of the MNLF siege of Zamboanga City

SENATE HEARING: Five months since the Zamboanga Crisis, the Senate wants to look into the 'true cause' of the MNLF attack. Photo by Carmela Fonbuena

MANILA, Philippines – “You are the peace adviser. You should be the most patient Cabinet Secretary because you’d want to have everybody on board. I understand there were consultations but getting them on board is another matter.” 

Senator Antonio Trillanes IV put government chief peace adviser Teresita “Ging” Deles in the hot seat during a Senate hearing last week. It’s been 5 months since the Moro National Liberation Front’s bloody siege of Zamboanga City, and the Senate wanted to look into the “true cause” of the attack. 

Was it avoidable? What is the status of tripartite talks with the Moro National Liberation Front? What did the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (OPAPP) do when MNLF founder Nur Misuari declared independence 2 months prior to the siege and when they began holding peace rallies? What protocols should be put in place to prevent it from happening again?

“These pronouncements and these actions of Chairman Nur Misuari were evident that he was unhappy with something. What did your office do to reach out to him at that point? AFP and PNP cannot do anything but your office surely can,” said Trillanes.

Misuari declared the independence of the Bangsamoro in July 2013 or 2 months before the attack. His followers later held “peace rallies” in various provinces in Mindanao. 

But around this time, Zamboanga City Mayor Maria Isabelle “Beng” Climaco had raised the concerns to the national government. Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas II said the government was monitoring but it couldn’t make arrests because they were not committing violations at that point. The government was also taking into consideration its existing peace deal with the MNLF.

On Sept 9, 2013, the first clash between government troops and Misuari’s followers happened at sea. MNLF troops entered the city and attempted to hoist their flag of independence at the City Hall. What followed is a 3-weeks-long standoff that killed 183 Muslim rebels, 25 government troops, 13 civilians and burned up to 10,000 homes. 

Unhappy Misuari

Deles said the September 9 MNLF attack was a surprise. OPAPP was busy preparing for the September 16 tripartite meetings in Jakarta. They were assured that Misuari was attending and OPAPP hoped to clear the air there. 

“The Zamboanga siege is the result of the manipulation of facts by Professor Misuari and his cohorts to mislead their members into believing that their declaration of independence is justified,” Deles said. 

Deles was suggesting there was nothing OPAPP could have done to prevent the siege. “It happened not because the MNLF was unhappy but because he [Misuari] was unhappy. The peace process cannot give him what he wants which is perpetual entitlement to the leadership of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao,” Deles said. 

She stressed that OPAPP mobilized “all possible ways” to talk to Misuari’s group during those tense moments. 

Trillanes didn’t stop there. He grilled Deles on what OPAPP is doing now to communicate with Misuari. 

Deles replied: “He is a fugitive. OPAPP has no means to reach Misuari.”

This is where Trillanes told Deles not to give up on the Misuari group. “There is no excuse for what they did in Zamboanga but moving forward, Ma’am, can you not please close the door on anybody? 

Huwag kayo magsawa to reach out. Kakailanganin niyo iyan especially with these Bangsamoro new agreement. You have to keep on reaching. Let the political leadership close the door. But you’re supposed to be the woman of peace. You have to keep your doors open to anyone,” he added.

Ending tripartite talks

The Zamboanga crisis happened just as OPAPP  was seeking to end the tripartite review of the peace deal with the MNLF while it was finalizing an imminent peace deal with the rival group Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).  (READ: Gov’t, MILF sign historic firearms deal)

The government tags the Misuari group as among the “spoilers” of the peace process with the MILF.

MNLF commander Habier Malik, who led the Zamboanga attack, lamented in media interviews how the peace deal with the MILF would supersede the existing peace agreement with the MNLF. (READ: Malik: Trapped in the city he seized)

But OPAPP said it was not the case. Deles said the MNLF was invited to participate in the groundwork for the new Bangsamoro territory. Nothing also prevents MNLF personalities from joining the elections that will choose the new territory’s leader, she added.

Misuari was opposed to the completion of the tripartite review talks. He argued that certain provisions in the peace deal with the MNLF remain to be implemented. He insisted on the inclusion of 13 provinces – inclusing Zamboanga City – in the ARMM inspite of plesbiscites where residents opposed it. 

“Certainly, 7 year of a review process has fully exhausted anything that needs to be looked into,” said Deles. 

OPAPP role in the negotiations

At the hearing, Zamboanga City Mayor Maria Isabelle “Beng” Climaco said OPAPP could have been more helpful during the crisis. 

There were negotiations at various levels but they failed. Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas II himself talked to Malik over the phone “two to three times.” Climaco also talked about police “emissaries” talking to the Misuari followers. 

“OPAPP sent a representative though Undersecretary Jose Lorena to the city of Zamboanga but left after a day in order to attend a budget hearing,” Climaco mentioned in her opening speech. 

Climaco said OPAPP could have been more helpful during the negotiations. She also talked to Misuari and Malik but she said she could not give in to their demands. (Lorena eventually returned to Zamboanga City.)

“The demand was to implement the final peace accord. As local chief executive, it is not within my powers to implement the peace accord. There are certain limitations to it. National government should really come in,” she said. 

Rappler reported about the botched surrender of MNLF fighters at the height of the crisis. (READ: Zambo Crisis: Bungled chances in Zamboanga City

Looking forward, Climaco said it would be useful to teach local executives what can be done in similar situations in the future. – Rappler.com 

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