We see the battlefield for what it is only when the smoke clears.
The past two weeks have seen the best of us drift into easy narratives of honour, national pride or blind patriotism. Thousands, mostly in Luzon, soon joined the chorus calling for “all out war” on the MILF. Many more have declared all prospects for peace talks with the Moro people null and void. The more sober among us have pinned the blame, perhaps appropriately, on the President-as-Commander-in-Chief, as well as on the failures of a poorly coordinated anti-terror plot lost in the fog of war.
As the debris settles, we are called to worship at the altar of the spirit of national unity, where sentiments of Us-vs-Them are in full display.
Buried beneath layers of misguided patriotism and historical amnesia is the fact that Maguindanao was the site of another massacre, the single worst massacre of journalists in the world. And the murders of witnesses to that tragedy continue to this day – killed not by Moro rebels, but armed goons hired by Maguindanao’s mafia lords. Indeed, if death counts are any indicator, then the real terrorists are in barong tagalogs and combat fatigues, not insurgents. It takes no more than a fleeting glance over the past century to see that more civilians have died in the hands of the nation’s security forces, Davao death squads, and private militia backed by local warlords than have died in the hands of the country’s numerous insurgencies.
Numerous – because the root causes of armed resistance have not been dealt with.
Buried beneath the rhetoric of the right is the legitimacy of the movement for Bangsamoro independence which has dragged on for decades, if not centuries. The sentiments of a people eager to break ranks from the fiction of a nation whose leadership they know does not represent them are understandable.
Buried, too, is proof that the Philippine state itself is bound up in an orgy of self-reinforcing violence. Accusations abound of arms smuggled from the military itself into the hands of insurgents; of incursions by the AFP into schools and Lumad territories in Mindanao; of mass displacements of civilian communities; of the assassinations of dozens of activists; of drug smuggling and crime rings tracing their origins to the military’s top brass; of rank-and-file cops paid wages so low and soldiers given gear so flimsy – in islands so remote – it’s a miracle they haven’t boycotted their posts to save their own lives.
In all this the country is hardly unique in the roster of conflict-ridden, near-failed states.
Much has been said already about the complexity of Mindanao’s plight and the history of her people, and the fact that ending peace talks will only make matters worse, strengthening factions of the MILF that do not want peace at all. We are left rolling our eyes after Kris Aquino’s pathetic attempts to defend her brother President’s incompetence and insensitivity. We are quick to condemn ‘terroristic’ violence, but we have yet to question the very assumptions under which we justify the government’s violence against our own people.
It is easiest to say there are two sides. One black, the other white. Insurgent and hero.
But if it takes two sides to make peace, why is it that the odds are always weighed in favour of the already-powerful?
Is it because we believe men in uniform, marching in straight order, have more symbolic legitimacy than the lives of rebellious people in barbaric peripheries , the lives of indigenous minorities, or the urban poor swept away from our cities by the cops to clear way for our shiny new malls? Is it because we buy into the legal dogma that the state should have the monopoly over the use of force?
Is our willingness to submit to unjust authority the standard by which our society judges its martyrs? Is martyrdom a choice? Is a virulent, right-wing nationalism obsessed over territorial integrity and the fiction of a homogenous Filipino nation more important than justice for our people?
If our troops are our heroes, who exactly are they defending? Why is the value of a civilian life seemingly less than that of a cop or a soldier mandated to protect us?
These are troubling questions. Especially so in situations where the boundaries between the powerful and powerless are revealed for what they are: porous and contested, where loyalties blur between master and slave, and where black and white fade into uneasy grey – as things nearly always are in the real world.
But if we are truly concerned about ending war by dealing with its causes, then the road to peace starts with a sense of proportion and history.
The basic rule of thumb in conflict situations is this: any man who commands others to wield a gun and slaughter innocents in the name of freedom, economic development, counter-terrorism, or the “nation” is a liar. Things get complicated where the power to distinguish the innocent from the guilty, the martyr from the terrorist, is left to those who can afford that power. In a world where lives are bought and sold to the highest bidder, the most profitable are the merchants of death.
In this light, to truly “honour” the lives of the SAF fighters — and the nameless civilians who died with them — is to frame their deaths in the context of the structural violence that these men (many from impoverished families) have been bred and trained to embrace. It is to see their wasted lives in the context of a history of bloodshed in a region where the rule of the gun is the only law.
To truly honour the deaths of the victims of Mindanao and Manila’s elites begins with the sober recognition that obedience without conscience is at the heart of a militarism committed to protecting the status quo. Victims – for that is what they are – victims of a game we are all forced to play. A game that pits slaves against one another to feed the profitable jaws of war and empire.
You want war? We are already in one. But any war that does not have, as its ultimate objective, the pursuit of lasting peace rooted in justice for our people, is not one worth fighting.