The best chance for peace in Muslim Mindanao in the Philippines has just noticeably faded.
The deadly clash in the early morning of Sunday 25 January between the Special Action Force of the Philippine National Police and the local command of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), in an MILF stronghold in Maguindanao, left five MILF fighters and between 30 to 60 police officers dead and up to eight captured. This is the largest number of police officers killed on duty in Philippines history.
The term 'misencounter', used by both the government and the MILF to describe the clash, seems euphemistically inadequate, as noted by opposition Senator JV Ejercito.
Four different but intertwined elements of the massacre will aggravate its damaging, potentially disastrous, impact on the progress of the peace deal signed between Manila and the MILF command in March 2014:
- The massacre occurred at a sensitive time in the legislative deliberations over the draft Bangsamoro Basic Law. The Basic Law is meant to turn the March 2014 peace deal into a national law, establishing a new, more autonomous, regional government for the Moro Islamic community. This process is already months behind President Aquino's ambitious timeline, which calls for elections to this new regional government to coincide with the 2016 presidential poll and the end of Aquino's single term. With at least two of the 13 senators who co-sponsored the senate version of the draft Basic Law withdrawing their support due to the massacre, further delays are a certainty.
- Opposition to the draft law and the 2014 peace deal among local Mindanao politicians (Muslim and Christian) and national legal and political figures was already mounting before the massacre. The massacre will increase the number of politicians at both levels opposed to the peace deal and the Basic Law, and provides them a powerful new emotive rationale for their opposition.
- The fact that the slain police detachment was hunting for a known Malaysian terrorist and suspected that this senior Jemaah Islamiyah figure, 'Marwan', and his associate Basit Usman, were hiding out in the house of the local MILF commander, focuses new attention on the multiple personal links between senior personnel in MILF and regional terrorists seeking safe haven in Mindanao. Multiple reports that BIFF fighters joined in the fighting further reinforces recognition of the strong, often familial, connections between the MILF that struck the latest peace agreement with Manila and insurgent groups that reject the deal.
- It is reported that the nearby Philippine Army detachment was unable to provide support to the cornered and outgunned police during the 'dusk to dawn' fighting due the stipulations of the ceasefire agreement between the MILF and the Philippines Government. This could well undermine support for the ceasefire conditions among local Army and police personnel mourning their fallen peers and smarting from the seemingly one-sided outcome of the clash.
Both the MILF and the Aquino Administration have called for the peace process to continue unimpeded despite this apparent massacre, which stands out even by the violent standards of Mindanao. Many opponents to the peace deal in Manila and in Mindanao will disagree.
The decades-long search for peace in Muslim Mindanao has seen many false dawns and the recurrence of low-intensity war. While the 25 January clash may not, by itself, spoil the latest and most comprehensive peace deal, it will not be easily overcome. The delays to the peace process will put the search for peace at risk yet again.