On Dec. 29, combined army and police teams swooped down on a Muslim community in Pikit, North Cotabato to serve arrest warrants following suspected motorcycle thefts in the province.
The raid erupted into a mini war. When the smoke of the gunfire evaporated, six civilians, including a woman, were killed and four police officers were wounded.
Brig. Gen. Alexander Tagum, the regional police chief, hailed the joint operations as a success after the security force recovered more than 400 motorcycles, believed to have been stolen, and several guns. Tagum boasted they also got the main target.
But what Tagum failed to consider was the collateral damage to the operations. Three members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), a rebel group which had signed a peace agreement with the government seven years ago, were among those killed in the operations.
The joint army and police tactical operations have a very serious implication on the larger peace agreement as both sides continue to build trust and confidence on the ground.
At the political level, it appears the creation of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) has been running smoothly since a Bangsamoro Transitional Authority was installed in 2019.
It is not a perfect organization and setup as there are still many unresolved issues, and funding remains a big headache as top MILF leaders now running the Muslim region are facing a real challenge in reforming institutions.
Al Haj Murad Ebrahim must have found out by now that it’s easier to take up arms than to shed his rebel uniform, put up his coat and tie, and grapple peacefully with his pen the region’s political, economic and social problems.
The fighting that happened in Pikit may no longer be part of the BARMM jurisdiction but there are areas outside the region where there are Muslim settlements, especially in some towns in Lanao del Norte and North Cotabato.
The MILF has been discussing with the government the redrawing of maps in Mindanao and the inclusion of Muslim-dominated barangays and towns in the BARMM.
Violence and corruption have been the biggest challenges in the BARMM, the region with the lowest Human Development Index, and one of the most backward regions in terms of literacy, healthcare, and economic development.
It faces threats from all domestic security threats — Communist New People’s Army (NPA) rebels along its border areas; Islamist militant groups Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) and other extremists forces; private army groups (PAGs) and pirates in the Sulu and Celebes Seas; and lawless elements known for extortion and kidnapping activities.
BARMM’s security problems have been larger than the whole country, which had forced the Philippine Army to deploy three full divisions to Maguindanao, Zamboanga, and Sulu. These account for almost a third of army infantry units.
In 2014, the government technically ended one of the bloodiest rebellions in its history by convincing the MILF to sign a peace accord. From 1969 until 2014, the conflict with Muslims had killed more than 120,000 people, displaced two million people and stunted growth in one of the country’s resource-rich regions.
BARMM has one of the biggest oil-and-gas deposits in Liguasan marsh and in Sulu Sea. American company Exxon used to drill for energy resources in the Sulu Sea.
The region will only move forward economically if all the armed groups in the region are dismantled and criminals put behind bars.
The MILF, as a former combatant force, plays a big role in keeping the region safe, stable and peaceful. But the bloody Dec. 29 incident in Pikit could cast doubts on peace and stability in the region.
General Tagum made a costly mistake. It was a tactical victory but it could endanger the whole war for peaceful coexistence.
When the government signed the political deal with the MILF in 2014, it also signed a ceasefire agreement with the Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces (BIAF), respecting Muslim rebel areas in Mindanao.
The military and the police must coordinate actions, like making arrests, in identified MILF areas or a community where MILF members are present.
In January 2015, a former PNP chief made a mistake in sending teams of elite Special Action Forces (SAF) to capture a Malaysian bomb-maker, Marwan, in a Muslim community in Mamasapano, Maguindanao.
The raid was a success. The target was neutralized but a heavy price was paid by 44 SAF members who died in a free-for-all battle called “pintakasi.”
The Philippine Army’s big guns, which could have saved the police, went completely silent to protect the peace process.
A shot from a 105-mm howitzer could have sparked a larger war, destroying a peace deal signed several months earlier.
Relations with the MILF have been tested many times, including when President Joseph Estrada ordered an all-out-offensive against the MILF in 2000, the massacre of Army soldiers in Basilan in 2009, and the MILF rampage in 2008 after the Supreme Court junked an ancestral domain agreement between the government and the MILF.
General Tagum should have coordinated first with the MILF, allowing a team of former rebels to observe or take part in the raid.
There have been many success stories of how the government and the MILF had cooperated to rescue kidnap victims and arrest criminals, and in conducting other peace and order operations in BARMM.
For instance, the Army allowed the MILF to deal with BIFF in the southern part of Maguindanao province.
The PNP Region 12 office said more than 400 motorcycles were recovered in the raid. It was unclear if these vehicles were stolen because what the police raided was a buy-and-sell shop for motorcycles.
Emotions will run high in Pikit and some people might resent how the police in Region 12 disregarded the rules of engagement under the ceasefire agreement.
Rodrigo Duterte does not need a distraction like the Pikit incident in keeping peace and stability in BARMM. He has his hands full in dealing with the Omicron variant and with restarting the economy.
Both Duterte and Murad have to work together to stop the Pikit incident from spilling out into other areas and escalating to a full-blown conflict. They must act swift and firm.
The Philippines cannot afford another security problem. There are outside forces waiting for things to explode in the south. Pro-Islamic State militant forces are looking for the next region to destabilize. It could be Mindanao. Let’s hope it’s not.