Lanao del Norte Atrocities Exposed MILF’s Weakness


By Carlos H. Conde

If there is one thing the raid on Lanao del Norte by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) showed, it is that the 25-year-old front is still so far away from achieving something that it needs as a genuine revolutionary movement: discipline and political sensitivity.

According to the military (and let us not forget that practically every news about Lanao del Norte came from the military), the Lanao del Norte attack resulted in the deaths of 34 people, many of them civilians. What was remarkable in the aftermath of the raid was the MILF leadership’s immediate acknowledgment that, indeed, it was its forces that raided the Lanao del Norte towns.

Forget that the MILF considered the civilian deaths in Lanao del Norte as “collateral damage.” That may seem insensitive on the part of the MILF but, to be frank about it, the Moro people had had more “collateral damage” in this war. And we didn’t hear Malacañang raise its voice in self-righteous indignation when, for example, Moro civilians were victimized by the war in Pikit or that it even raised a finger to warn Mayor Rodrigo Duterte about the series of abductions of Moro leaders in Davao City.

The MILF’s admission was a departure from the hemming and hawing, if not outright denials, that characterized its behavior every time the military accuses it of some atrocity. (Of course, a possible reason for this is that either the MILF’s control over its men on the ground was loose or the military’s allegations were simply not true, considering that there are many other groups in Mindanao – the armed forces included — that are capable of the most deplorable violence.) It was a sign that the front is starting to show some maturity — it does not anymore think twice about taking responsibility for its actions.

But in spite of its rather long experience as a revolutionary movement and in spite of the experiences of past Moro groups like the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), even the communist New People’s Army, the MILF has a long way to go in proving that it deserves the respect of all peoples. For one, as the behavior of its men showed in Lanao del Norte, its forces lack discipline and the political sense of what their action might do to their cause.

This could be the result of an organizational malaise that has been plaguing it for years: the MILF is so big that it is unwieldy. Imagine this: a force of some 25,000 members running loose in the countryside of Mindanao. The government’s all-out war in 2000, as well as the latest in the Buliok complex, dispersed this force and the front has since found it extremely difficult to run a huge and widespread organization. This could have been the reason why the MILF leadership, by its spokesman’s own admission, gave its commanders “autonomy” in running the affairs of their units.

The immensity of the MILF stems from the nature of its struggle, in which a whole people wants liberation from the State. Its ideology, albeit religious in nature, finds resonance in most Moros in Mindanao who have been at the losing end of State policy for decades now. This explains why it didn’t take long for the MILF to grow its force since it defected from the MNLF in 1978.

A movement this big, therefore, should make discipline its primary concern. Indeed, the MILF has existing programs that outline its goals and objectives and how to achieve these. But precisely because its mass base is not only huge but dispersed, the lack or absence of strict revolutionary discipline is a problem.

If it had been otherwise, the raid in Lanao del Norte would not have resulted in those civilian deaths. We learned, for instance, that the target of the raid was the military command outpost in the town. A well-planned raid coupled with a disciplined force would have accomplished the mission without bloodshed; we see this in the NPA’s raids in the past that were largely successful but bloodless – and sometimes without even firing a single shot.

The problem with the MILF’s Lanao del Norte raid was that, because its forces were not as disciplined as the NPA, some Moro locals, even a tricycle operator, joined in the sacking of the town. For all we know, these people were members of the MILF but the fact that the raid apparently turned into a free-for-all — at least as can be gleaned from official reports and, to some extent, the MILF leadership’s admission to media – indicates a serious lapse in discipline and betrays the MILF’s anti-Christian sectarianism.

There is wisdom in Mao Zedong’s exhortation to the Red fighters of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) not to steal even a single needle from peasants. I recall one MILF raid in Cotabato a few years ago in which MILF forces carted away the livestock of the residents whose community the guerrillas had just raided. Things like this are anathema to a revolutionary group.

The MILF cannot continue doing this if it wants to be taken seriously. It is not enough that the front admits to its mistake every now and then. It has to impose a strict set of discipline among its followers and improve their awareness of, for example, the treatment of non-combatants. It has to abide by every rule and every law that governs armed conflicts.

The front cannot explain away its action by citing the fact that, in areas such as Lanao del Norte, the resentment by Muslims against Christians is still brewing, hence the decision by some Muslim locals to join the offensive not so much to achieve the raid’s supposed tactical goal but to vent that resentment, perhaps even launch their own rido (vengeange) against the Christians in the town. If, during raids, the MILF opens its ranks to these angry constituents, it is risking trouble and political isolation.

While it is true that the government’s series of offensives against the MILF pushed the front to the wall, hence the tendency by some of its “autonomous” units to run amuck, the MILF cannot invoke this to justify its errors like Lanao del Norte. A decentralized leadership isn’t a serious a problem as lack of discipline. Even if the whole might of the State is brought to bear on the MILF, the deaths of civilians can be avoided or minimized if there is paramount discipline among the front’s ranks.

And discipline can only be achieved if each and every MILF member appreciates the reality that their struggle is not just about winning territories but the respect of the people, Moro or not.

The point is, the MILF has to rise above crude, often needless, violence. It has to make sure that its forces are above hooliganism. It must offer a humane alternative to the atrocity of the State that compelled the Moros to revolt in the first place. It has to live up to the ideals of a genuine revolutionary movement.

(The above article was first published in the May 18-24, 2003, edition of Bulatlat.com, the online alternative newsmagazine. It was later reprinted by the Philippine Daily Inquirer. Apart from changing the word “Siocon” to “Lanao del Norte,” not one word was changed or omitted. Siocon is a town in Zamboanga del Norte that was raided by MILF elements in 2003. That raid bore striking similarities to the atrocities committed by MILF rebels this week in several towns in Lanao del Norte and Sarangani.)

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: