Whilst the two incidents are not directly connected, they do show in all their drama how the “kidnapping business” and the “strategy of terror” inject violence and uncertainty into a difficult peace process involving the MILF and the Filipino government.
In the first case it is not clear whether Abû Sayyaf (a terror group linked al-Qa’ida), or one connected to it, was actually involved in the abduction of Eugenio Vagni. In fact on Jolo and Basilan Islands in western Mindanao, several groups, more or less inspired by Islam, are operating on their own, with kidnapping as their main business activity. Foreigners, whether they are volunteers, missionaries, businessmen, journalists or tourists, are their target of choice. Still they have not refrained from taking Filipinos, especially if they are wealthy or important public officials.
These groups act against human dignity and international law for a number of reasons: Islamist ideology, a yearning for the independence of Mindanao and separation from the Philippines, or a desire to escape of the abject poverty that grips this underdeveloped and depressed region.
As is wont in such cases many factors make these gangs of misfits choose the quick path of violence and wrong-doing, labouring under the illusion that crime pays. In actual fact many of them are captured by the Filipino military or killed in shootouts with soldiers or rival gangs.
In the second case, that of the attack against the church, I think the situation is actually much worse because it is not only about security on the island of Mindanao but is also about the peace process and Christian-Muslim relations. Here violence was visited upon Christians for the purpose of creating insecurity and protecting obvious political interests. The question then is what type of interests?
As mentioned above the MILF and the Filipino government have been involved in a peace process for a number of years. This process has had its ups and downs but has not yet found a final solution.
On the one hand, the MILF wants the government to recognise it as an Islamic movement of national liberation, not as a terror group. In addition it wants amnesty for all its fighters and better social and economic conditions for Filipino Muslims and the families of MILF members.
On the other hand, the government wants a stop to the fighting, the decommissioning of MILF weapons and the incorporation of MILF fighters into the Filipino military. From its point of view no sub-national group can have its own armed force in the Philippines and no organisation can exist, be it Muslim or otherwise, unless it recognises the sovereignty of the Filipino state over the nation’s territory. For the government the key issues are the demilitarisation of the MILF and the preservation of national unity. Hence the MILF must join the national political system and give up military action and separatist demands.
Inside the MILF some are in favour of ending the armed struggle against the government in exchange of administrative autonomy over areas under MILF control. Another faction is instead bent on pursuing the struggle for independence in order to set up an Islamic Republic on Mindanao.
Thus I think the attack in Cotabato City has to be placed in the context of a power struggle within the MILF between two factions vying for control, each willing to use every means at its disposal to achieve its goal.
Threatening the safety of ordinary citizens, Christians in this case, is both an attempt to up the ante ahead of negotiations with the Filipino government and a way to delegitimise MILF “moderates” to the benefit of the “diehard” faction.
The fact that the MILF disowned the attack and set up a commission of inquiry to investigate the incident is a sign that the moderate faction wants to reclaim its legitimacy and avert the danger that the movement as a whole be held responsible for the carnage and treated as a terrorist group.
Whatever political or historical judgement one may reach, what is clear is that after 40 years people still live in danger and insecurity. Given certain geopolitical interests, combined with religious fundamentalism, the various sides are more concerned with their own interests rather than those of the Filipino people. Each side wants to protect its privileges at the expense of a peace process that has not seen any movement in the past ten years.
But peace is not impossible. It can be achieved if and when personal and partisan interests take the backseat in favour of the common good as well as national security and welfare. Such yardsticks can help Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and tribal groups find ways to promote integration at the social, political and religious levels.