The southern Philippine quagmire: checkmate?

Following “the Al Barka incident”, in which 19 members of the Philippine military were killed in a fire fight with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, gunmen on both sides are left questioning why the two sides are even at odds to begin with.

The colourful and vociferous Philippine media called it everything from a “bloodbath” to an “ambush”.  Accusations were traded and fingers were pointed in all directions immediately after. But that was nearly a month ago. Now, the story has been relegated to the back pages of the broadsheets, if on the pages at all. 

Less passionately, it is now simply referred to as “the Al Barka incident”, after the locale in which it took place on the small southern island of Basilan in Mindanao. 

The “incident” nearly ruined an already tenuous truce between Philippine government troops and Muslim insurgents – who, by the way, no longer want to be called that. But they aren’t “rebels” either. Nor is it right, they say, to call them “separatists”. For the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), this is a battle to reclaim Muslim independence.  

MILF stands firm in its assertion that Muslim ancestral lands in the southern Philippines were illegally annexed to the predominantly Christian archipelagic nation created by Spanish colonisers in the 16th century when they turned over control to the Americans at the turn of the 20th century. 

So what to call MILF then?

The group’s leadership has been in talks with the Philippine government for over a decade. While the group’s leadership has remained largely unchanged, it has been forced to deal with at least three changes in Philippine government administration. 

One president declared an all-out war against them, complete with bombing operations and military raids. Not much came from that tactic. Now MILF is faced with a new president who is asking for calm and “all-out justice” instead.

The incident

At least 19 members of the Philippine military’s special forces were killed in a 10-hour fire fight with MILF troops in Basilan. The military said it was after armed men wanted by the police – “criminals” who had been involved in so-called acts of “terrorism”.  There was a reward on these criminals’ heads. 

Why was the military performing a police function?
Colonel Arnulfo Burgos, military spokesperson, said it was because the police was not equipped to handle the operation and that the criminals law enforcers were in pursuit of were highly-armed.

He said that the army needed to step in and help the police out, but in their pursuit accidentally encountered MILF.
Burgos insists government troops were nowhere near MILF territory.

ATS agreement

How is it that MILF has “territory” on an island under Philippine government rule?
There are two sides to the story. 

MILF insists that the government previously agreed to “areas of temporary stay” (ATS) for MILF communities. he group says that everyone is supposed to recognise these areas as being under MILF “control”, and that no one is supposed to enter without first “coordinating” with MILF authorities – including the military. 

This situation has been tolerated as the status quo for years. Even NGOs and aid groups can not conduct activities in certain areas of the southern Philippines without first communicating with MILF’s leadership.
The military now claims that these areas were basically temporary “relocation sites” for MILF commanders and their families while armed combat continued in their villages. The military says this ATS agreement should no longer stand, as a ceasefire has been in place for quite some time. Technically, the “war” is over or at a standstill. At least, it is supposed to be.
So there are no more areas of temporary stay – at least not in principle. However, on the ground, they do exist and MILF still expects visitors to respect that.
Anyone who crosses the unseen borders without the group’s prior knowledge runs the risk of being considered a trespasser, or worse, hostile. In such cases, the group’s fighters are within their rights, as they see it, to defend themselves.
The operation

Lieutenant Erren Khe said that he spoke to his brother, JD, the night before the Al Barka operation. JD was one of the military’s special forces killed during the incident. 

According to Khe, his brother told him that his unit was pulled off their scuba diving training on a neighbouring island to perform a test mission on Basilan. They were tasked with clearing the beach – presumably to prepare it for the infantry to land and conduct the military-police operation to arrest the wanted men. 

But JD was wrong. Shortly after coming ashore his unit was made to move further inland – where they encountered MILF. That is when the gun-battle began. 

No additional infantrymen were coming. There were no support airstrikes. No back-up marines. Initial reports indicated that the mission was “off-the-books” – which even though the military says is “standard practice” on many battle-fronts, this particular operation seemed to have also been unknown to top brass in central command. 

It took a while for the elite military leadership chain to even find out that something was going on and then even longer to figure out exactly what had happened that led to it. 

MILF said that it had acted in self-defence. And that even though there were over 300 MILF fighters battling less than 100 government troops, no “coordination” had taken place.

MILF’s leadership also said that the men the soldiers were after should not have been considered “criminals” because they were MILF fighters and acting as such. Any transgressions that they may have committed, the group said, should have been dealt with within the group itself. 


But MILF has said that about various commanders in the past.  And as far as the government knows, the group has taken no action against prior offenders. 

What’s more, some of these commanders have broken away from MILF and created their own armies. This begs the question – is MILF’s leadership still in control of its own forces? 

Officially, the group claims to have an estimated 6,000 fighters and insists all toe the line. However, the reality on the ground tells a different story.
In the quest for peace, both sides have accused each other of insincerity.


The “Al Barka incident” is now being called a fiasco, with the military having added to the confusion by making contradictory statements. 

It first claimed that it did not need to coordinate with MILF because the soldiers did not encroach on MILF territory.
Later, it said MILF’s leadership had been informed of the operation and knew that the soldiers were coming.

Following that, the military said that MILF did not really have the right to close off these areas and that the ATS agreement had expired. Therefore, the army was within its rights to go wherever it had to, within Philippine territory, to perform its duties for the greater good.

The government and MILF have agreed to conduct a joint investigation into the incident and continue talking peace.
So far, at least two military ground commanders have been relieved of duty over the fiasco. At the centre of it all is what some in the army have called an “ambitious, over-eager, reckless, and ill-informed commander” taking unnecessary risks with the lives of his men for a promotion.

US presence

Still, other military sources said that the motivation behind the operation was to receive reward money that was being offered in exchange for the so-called “terrorists”. The money had allegedly been offered by the US – which still has soldiers stationed in Mindanao. 

Many Filipinos question what the US is even doing in the southern Philippines.
“Their presence in the area, and their involvement in what’s going on really only makes things worse,” one member of the military said. 

He also said that this was not the first time that such an operation was conducted for monetary gain. 

Playing chess

Lieutenant Khe likened the conflict in Mindanao to a chess match – or a round of “Moro-Moro”, a Filipino childhood game similar to cowboys and Indians. 

Many young officers in the military feel the same way.
“I wish they wouldn’t just play chess with soldiers’ lives,” Khe said.

“I wish they wouldn’t consider us pawns because we have families too… that get hurt and are affected.”
For the young and idealistic Khe, it is one thing to serve your country and a whole other matter to be ordered into battle for selfish reasons.
Khe is a man who is very disappointed in a system that he has become a part of. 

Military reform

Still, Khe believes that the situation is changing.

For one, he feels comfortable enough to speak out – to publicly question the command structure without fear of being castigated internally. 

He has faith in the country’s president, he said, and stands by the leader’s call for calm. 

President Benigno Aquino III took a huge chance in publicly reprimanding the army for bad planning directly after the “the Al Barka incident”. 

Whispers of a coup circulated shortly after that. It was expected that Aquino would have incurred the ire of the steely generals by “humiliating” the Armed Forces in public.

Instead, Aquino’s pronouncements seemed to have earned him the respect of peace stakeholders. They have also made the reformist, up-and-coming young soldiers in the military take a friendlier view of their new commander-in-chief.
Respect earned, they plan to heed his call for “all-out justice” instead of war.

They want to see the people responsible for the soldiers’ deaths brought to trial. And surprisingly, many soldiers are not out for revenge on MILF. What they want is the erring commanders court martialed and imprisoned.

MILF frustration

Many of MILF’s fighters are also tired of being pawns.

We previously filmed in a MILF camp that had experienced thousands abandoning their leaders, complaining of corruption and greed within their own organisation. 

They pledged their allegiance to the original Muslim rebel leader Nur Misuari – who as head of the Moro National Liberation Front, MILF’s mother group, signed a peace deal with the government over a decade ago. That agreement has not quite worked out as all sides may have liked, but that is a matter for a different blog posting.

The Muslim fighters we spoke to – some as young as 19 years old – were tired of constantly living in fear. They just wanted to be able to feed their families and hold a job that didn’t entail carrying a high-powered firearm.
It was a vision of a life that they could barely even imagine possible, but the exhaustion of existing as they did allowed them just that little snippet of hope. That somewhere, sometime, there had to be something “better than this”.


So what now, Mindanao? (And this is only in reference to the restive areas)
Unlike Lieutenant Khe’s chess game, things aren’t simply black and white. Like the resource-rich marshland that they are protecting and fighting over, the situation is a quagmire. 

Like quicksand, every action seems to pull all sides deeper in. Hundreds of thousands of lives forever altered by a conflict that many – even in Mindanao – say they no longer understand or care to perpetuate. 

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