‘All-out war, all-out justice’–what’s that?
In the wake of the killing of 19 Special Forces soldiers in Al-Barka, Basilan, the Aquino administration has gone out of its way to explain its process in formulating policy on the Mindanao war.
Forced by the Basilan clash to clarify his administration’s vague policy of neither war nor peace, President Aquino on Oct. 24 announced: “We will not pursue all-out war; we will instead pursue all-out justice.”
The nation did not clearly understand what he meant.
The attack in Basilan came despite the ceasefire between the government forces and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), in place since 2008.
In response to public calls for punitive action against the MILF, the President said on television: “There have been calls to wage an ‘all-out war’ against the MILF. While it is tempting … to join the chorus in calling for blood, we believe that such a course of action is not appropriate at this point. We are not interested in knee-jerk reactions that will jeopardize efforts to address the roots of conflict in the region.”
Mr. Aquino also said: “It is so easy, out of frustration, to close the door on negotiations this time. If we go down this path, more innocent civilians will be put in harm’s way. The difficult peace process cannot be ensured by shedding more blood and generating more ill will. We have to exhaust all possibilities in attaining peace through dialogue.”
In rhetoric, this declaration cannot be faulted. The President said all the right things. The catch lay in the definition of “all-out justice,” or in reconciling the contradictions flowing from this policy or strategy.
The flaw immediately surfaced when Mr. Aquino said he had ordered the Armed Forces to launch an all-out offensive to “pursue lawless elements” in a wide dragnet that targeted the Abu Sayyaf outlaws without specifying the MILF.
This loose definition deflected the focus of the military offensive. It also raised questions about whether the government was candid in its assessment of the cause of the new flare-up in Mindanao—specifically whether the MILF violated the terms of the ceasefire agreement in which the MILF rebels were designated certain noncombat zones.
The military has claimed that the Army units were ambushed while responding to reports about the presence of outlaws in the area, including a fugitive Abu Sayyaf leader wanted for murder. This bandit leader stood outside the framework of the peace process, which the government said it wanted to maintain and which it called on the MILF leadership to respect.
This is where some of the tricky ambiguities of the peace process are found and where the problems of protecting confidence-building measures have come from.
It is fair to say that not many Filipinos want the peace process to fail—except possibly the extremists who seek an unconditional capitulation of the Philippine Republic to MILF demands for a Bangsamoro “substate” in Philippine territory (giving the conflict the color of the sovereignty issue), or those calling for total annihilation of the Moro rebellions (something all Philippine governments since the Spanish colonial times have failed to achieve).
What has created some consternation among many Filipinos is the revelation by the administration’s Communications Development and Strategic Planning Office (CDSPO) of the Cabinet process in defining the “all-out justice” strategy.
Secretary Ramon Carandang, one of the secretaries of this three-headed public information monster CDSPO, said the term “all-out justice” was hastily coined in a Cabinet meeting to give a catchy slogan to the response of the administration to the new hostilities in Mindanao.
Carandang credited Tourism Secretary Ramon Jimenez with minting the “all-out justice” slogan to describe the strategy of identifying and pursuing criminals living among Moro rebels in the area where the troops were slaughtered on Oct. 18.
The slogan “clarified what we intended to do,” Carandang said. “Until then there had been no clear statement on what we intend to do.” He said that before the Oct. 24 speech, the people thought the government would not go after the killers of some of its elite troops.
“The President said no to all-out war,” Carandang said. “That led some people to believe we’d just let them be. Which was not the President’s intention.”
According to an Inquirer report, the term was coined during a meeting of Cabinet officials on the morning the President was to deliver his statement on one of his decisions that had received heavy media criticism.
The Cabinet officials, including the executive secretary, the Armed Forces chief of staff, the Philippine National Police director general, and the President’s advisers on political affairs and on the peace process, as well as the tourism secretary, went over the draft on Sunday morning. The draft was approved Monday morning.
The President was hands-on in crafting the statement, Carandang said. It was Jimenez (please note that he is a former advertising executive) who came-up with the term “all-out justice.”
It appeared that what the Cabinet badly needed was a crowd-drawing slogan, such as “Daang Matuwid” and “Ban the Wang-wang”—not a well-thought-out and nuanced policy strategy.
Carandang said the President was very clear. The best possible outcome was to go after the lawless elements but at the same time preserve the peace process.
Ronald Llamas, the President’s political adviser, chimed in—the policy was “focused on who are the real enemies, which needs a more surgical response rather than all-out chemotherapy, which is sometimes just as destructive as the disease.”
How are we to excise “lawless elements” embedded in MILF-controlled territory? Exterminate them with napalm bombs and flame throwers—as the Americans did in Vietnam?
Carandang has a simple answer: “We still don’t know what’s going to happen down the road.”
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