Mamasapano: Who do we condemn? Whose lives matter?

Many Moros I interacted with professed to enacting jihad. They are, however, not the stereotyped crazed Muslim terrorist that had been successfully ingrained in many minds by the post 9/11 geopolitical and discursive formations; jihad means different things for many Moros, among which are the struggle to improve oneself and the struggle against oppression, regardless if the oppressor is the Philippine state or fellow Muslims. They desired a life of peace rather than war, and carried farming and fishing tools more often than guns.

My months of living with poor Maguindanaon Moros gave me an understanding of the complexity of the conflict, its convoluted strands, the precariousness of everyday life, the struggle to be a Muslim in the Philippines, and the difficulty of arriving at easy straightforward explanations for events. So many actors at play, so many interests at stake. Yet, despite the decades-long conflict, the MILF and the GRP have engaged in negotiations much more than they engaged in war. And I fervently hope that this last peace talks will truly end the protracted war. Alas, politicians, lay people, scholars, and many in the mass media, have been spewing rumors and inflammatory remarks that have put the peace talks in danger, and more importantly have put the south once again on the brink of war.

As calls for condemnation on the death of the 44 SAF mount – deaths that should indeed be given justice by making those accountable responsible – it is alarming that many have called for all-out war and for withdrawal of the peace talks. Such calls have been made in the absence of the final results of ongoing investigations on what actually happened in Mamasapano, ignorance of the  protocols on military operations in government-recognized MILF territories and of the details of the peace agreement (i.e., the BBL will not lead to the separation of Mindanao as many incorrectly thought, and the region will not be served to the MILF on a silver platter as it has to convert itself  into a political party and run in the 2016 Bangsamoro elections against other parties).

Ironically, these calls for war will not condemn those responsible for the death of the 44 SAF. Rather, they will condemn Moros, Christians, and indigenous peoples alike in this part of the country who will suffer through another war. Thus, we should put the Mamasapano clash within a longer historical and socio-cultural context. I offer here a few points that I hope will contribute clarity to the prevailing discourse:

1) Investigations are being conducted separately by the International Monitoring Team (IMT) which also investigated the Al Barka clash in 2011, the MILF, and the government. Before the findings are released, we should refrain from making concluding statements regarding the MILF or the BIFF coddling this or that terrorist, or whether it was an ambush, or an encounter. If there was indeed brutality on the part of the MILF or BIFF forces, then the specific perpetrators should be brought to justice. But as we call for this, we should also demand for government forces' accountability for human rights violations they committed not just in Mindanao, but also in the rest of the country. Otherwise, we will be practicing exceptionalism, where certain lives matter more than others.

2) Since the 2012 signing of the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro, violence was significantly diminished in Moro areas largely due to the presence of the IMT, the vigilance of a vibrant civil society, the GRP-MILF joint committee on cessation of hostilities, as well as the work of the MILF's Task Force Etihad. In my many months of living in Central Mindanao, I've seen the MILF Task Force Etihad proceed to a clash point to stop the conflict – whether due to BIFF action or clan feuds – from escalating. The GRP-MILF joint committee on cessation of hostilities has also been instrumental in keeping the area relatively quiet, a marked difference in the lives of many residents who experienced an eruption of conflict cyclically almost every 3 years.

3) The "camp" is not a camp in the stereotypical sense of the word. It's a community. Camp Abubakar and Camp Darapanan are both thriving communities where people reside. Mamasapano is a big municipality and an MILF stronghold. That up to 100 armed men eventually joined the encounter is not surprising. They live in the villages! It was thus relatively easy to call for reinforcements, unlike the Army who needed to access the area. Add to this the proliferation of loose firearms in villages and the MILF forces' knowledge of the terrain. Thus, the high SAF death toll does not necessarily mean that the MILF in the village knew ahead of time of the SAF operation.

5) Being villages, there are Moro families in these areas whose lives were threatened by the presence of armed men they did not recognize. Thus, peoples' response to the armed men should be read within the long history of government forces wantonly entering Moro villages, searching for men, harassing people, destroying property, and making arrests. Again, who fired first is subject to investigation. Before that, I would refrain from making judgments.

6) The BIFF and the MILF should not be conflated with each other as some reports are wont to do. Half a year ago, the BIFF pledged allegiance to ISIS. Soon after that, the MILF denounced ISIS. BIFF and MILF had their own clashes as well. The MILF had tried its best to bring BIFF founder Kato back into the main guerrilla forces without success. Does this mean the MILF was not coddling Marwan? Not necessarily. Again, I would wait for the investigation.

7) Now, it could very well be that some MILF members have been coddling Marwan without knowledge of the leadership. This is an issue that the MILF needs to organizationally address. And if the organization knows about it, then condemnation is in order. But right now, many views are speculative, and in their speculativeness, are inflammatory and does not help the peace process at all.

8) One news report described the encounter as "combined forces" of BIFF and the MILF as though there exists a formal tactical alliance where there is none. One thing that many commentators lose sight of, or are unaware of, is that these are areas where people belonging to various armed groups are living side by side as relatives. At the moment of firefight with the SAF, one's kin relations rather than group affiliation might have been the defining factor.

9) The MILF has already issued a statement regarding the incident and expressed sympathy for those who perished on both sides and its commitment to punishing its members found to have violated rules. Yet politicians and many in the national media only talk of the SAF as though Moro lives – the 18 MILF forces and 7 civilians, including a 5-year-old girl who died, and the families who were held by police forces at gun point – do not matter.

10) Which brings me to my last point. The use of hashtag Filipinolivesmatter "others" Moros rather than includes them. Many Moros for a very long time have seen their identity as oppositional to the Filipino majority, precisely because of the centuries of oppression, land grabbing, political-economic exclusion, and discrimination they've experienced from colonial powers and the Philippine state. – Rappler.com

Rosa Cordillera Castillo is a PhD candidate in anthropology at the Berlin Graduate School Muslim Cultures and Societies and Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology, Freie Universität Berlin.