Column: Ignorant, or arrogant, in the Senate

Published on February 17, 2015.

How many Filipinos died in the day-long clash in Mamasapano, Maguindanao? Listening to Sen. Miriam Defensor Santiago interrogate Moro Islamic Liberation Front chief negotiator Mohagher Iqbal last week, one would think the answer was 44. If I’m not mistaken, she mentioned the “44 Filipinos” who perished in the cornfields at least twice. In the interview she granted after her dramatic first appearance at the Senate hearing on the Mamasapano incident, she used the phrase at least one more time.

The 44 Special Action Force troopers who died in the costly operation to capture or kill Jemaah Islamiyah bomb-maker Zulkifli bin Hir, also known as Marwan, were of course Filipinos. But so were the five civilians who died (presumably) in the crossfire or as part of the operation, including the hapless farmer who (according to his surviving family) had the misfortune of stumbling into an SAF company while on his way to the village center. And so were the 18 MILF rebels who died in the firefight. All told, and assuming that the tally is final (there is a possibility that seven civilians died, not five), the raid on Marwan’s hideout and the subsequent gun battle claimed 69 lives—68 of them Filipino.

(Marwan, of course, was Malaysian.)

Santiago’s phrasing may have been a subconscious tell, but whether deliberate or not, it served to emphasize the us-versus-them divide that runs through the assumptions of too many of our senators and congressmen like an ugly sneer. Is it a coincidence that the civilian and the MILF dead that Santiago forgot or ignored were all Muslim? There is a rhetorical power in referring to the 44 SAF troopers as “44 Filipinos,” but it is an arrogant power gained at the expense of (yet again) minimizing the Moro experience.

Why talk peace with the MILF if we do not consider the rebels and the Moro people they represent Filipinos, too?

Unfortunately, nobody in the Senate dared to confront Santiago about her dangerous assumptions. (The Senate website has a copy of her prepared questions; read the list, and see how some of her assumptions are not only dangerous but contradict each other.) Why are other senators afraid of Santiago? Among themselves they joke about not wanting to interpellate her, as if she were a superior intellect. She may yet be, in the silence of her writing room. But when she speaks in the Senate, she is the exact opposite: a bullying blowhard, closed to any other interpretation of facts not her own. (Remember how an elegant counter from Raul Roco exposed her in the Estrada impeachment trial.)

She reached the nadir (does she use that word? it’s Arabic in origin) when she stopped Iqbal at one point with the supercilious, anti-intellectual remark: “I did not ask for your opinion, and if I did I would give it to you.” (I am quoting from memory.) If she (and other senators, too) think they already know the answers, why conduct an inquiry in the first place? Unfortunately, this was just Santiago’s Senate-hall arrogance, yet again getting the best of her.

She is, of course, entitled to her opinion (I will not offer her mine), but her interpretation that the MILF is insincere (“the problem is that our dialogue partner has already proved that they cannot be trusted”) is surely subject to verification, too. There have been no encounters between government forces and MILF rebels for about four years (notwithstanding Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano’s ignorant comment mistaking the MILF for the Abu Sayyaf bandit group), because of the existing protocols of coordination. Is it a coincidence that the first clash happened precisely because of a government decision not to coordinate? (Not only with the MILF but, even more fundamentally, with the Philippine Army.)

And the issue of whether the MILF coddled Marwan or not (Santiago’s litmus test of the rebel group’s sincerity) still needs to be fully resolved. To see how limited Santiago’s perspective is (and that of the Cayetano siblings as well), read the extensive and indispensable interview with Commander Haramen, the MILF commander in Mamasapano, by Carol Arguillas of Mindanews—or the perspective-setting columns of Randy David.

There is much more to this issue than the bluster of Santiago, the opportunistic emotionalism of the Cayetanos, or the insidious obtuseness of Sen. Ferdinand Marcos Jr.

When Marcos pretends to be shocked! shocked! that the MILF still considers itself a revolutionary movement, before the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro takes full effect, does he even remember that his own mother negotiated with the Moro National Liberation Front when it was still an insurrectionary movement? Of course something remains what it is until change is complete; to think otherwise is to raise impossible expectations.

Another unreasonable expectation is that the peace talks must continue only if the MILF disarms. But we are talking about negotiation, not surrender. The decommissioning of the MILF’s arms is in fact in the schedule, but the reality is: It comes later rather than sooner.

Some in the AFP think that the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), which became a force to reckon with after the Supreme Court (rightly) invalidated the secretively negotiated Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain in 2008, maintains close ties with the MILF’s 105th Base Command (from which it emerged). Even if that were true (and I think it is), the arithmetic of peace is still compelling.

If, say, 500 MILF rebels join the BIFF in rejecting the final shape of the Bangsamoro, that would still leave some 11,500 of the MILF ready to join the Philippine mainstream for the first time. That would make the deaths, not only of the SAF 44, but of the 120,000 killed in the conflict since the 1970s, worth the sacrifice.

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