The Trust Deficit in Central Mindanao

Angelica Mangahas, ADRi Deputy Executive Director


Image Source: Rappler

When clashes erupted between the Philippine Army and an armed group within Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) areas1 in early February, concerns resurfaced over the future of the proposed Bangsamoro region. With the ‘death’ of the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL), the next steps of the MILF, the government peace panel, and the military will be crucial in stemming and overcoming mistrust between the parties and maintaining a level of security in central Mindanao sufficient for another effort at peace.

Over the Valentine’s Day weekend, the Philippine government’s and the MILF’s respective negotiating panels and members of the International Monitoring Team (IMT) met in Kuala Lumpur. As expected, the parties agreed to extend the ceasefire until the end of March 2017. The Philippines-MILF ceasefire has mostly held, with both sides broadcasting that no clashes erupted between them from 2012 to 2014.

Since 2015, however, the ceasefire record has no longer been pristine. In January of that year, MILF fighters fired on Philippine National Police Special Action Forces (SAF) that were withdrawing from a completed counter-terror operation to kill or capture Malaysian terrorist Zulkifli bin Hir (known as Marwan). In the subsequent clash, 44 members of the SAF lost their lives. Through government peace panel representatives, the MILF explained to Congress that their fighters, surprised by the presence of the SAF in their community, acted in self-defense. The entire affair, known as the ‘Mamasapano incident’, signaled the beginning of the end for the BBL, which would have set into action the terms of the 2014 peace agreement between the Philippine government and the MILF.

The Mamasapano incident and the subsequent failure of the BBL to pass Congress illustrate the importance of avoiding armed encounters and of preserving public support for the peace process. Crucially for the Philippine government, the former implies the latter. In March 2014, 62% of adult Filipinos surveyed said that peaceful negotiations were more effective than military operations when dealing with the MILF; in June 2015, months after the Mamasapano incident, the figure dropped 17 points to 45%. The drop is disconcerting, but the overall ratio of those who preferred negotiations to military operations nevertheless remained high at 2:1.2 Preserving that ratio should be a priority in mustering the political will to fully implement the peace agreement through law.

To avoid armed encounters, the most important body may be the least examined organ of the peace process: the Ad Hoc Joint Action Group (AHJAG). The AHJAG is a coordination mechanism between the armed forces and the national police on one hand, and the MILF on the other. Through it, government security forces notify the MILF prior to conducting law enforcement operations—such as counter-terror operations against wanted terrorists—near or within MILF areas. The MILF have 24 hours to withdraw fighters and civilians from a given area to limit the likelihood of an armed encounter.3 The Office of the Presidential Advisor on the Peace Process (OPAPP) has said that the AHJAG has “proven time and again its importance in isolating and interdicting…terrorist groups operating in Mindanao.”4

Yet, for Mamasapano, the SAF essentially overlooked the AHJAG, notifying the Philippine government representative to the body by text message only five minutes before the operation began.5 During the Senate investigation, SAF Commander Getulio Napeñas admitted that coordination with the AHJAG and the peace process’ ceasefire oversight committee “were not thoroughly studied and considered in the mission planning process”.6 Thus, there is either an inadequacy in law enforcers’ familiarity with the AHJAG or in enforcers’ trust in the coordination mechanism. Providing notification only five minutes prior, however, suggests the latter. It is possible that when the SAF command juggled the risks of coordination, like leaked information, they decided that it was better to seek forgiveness rather than permission.


Image Source: NDBC News

A year after Mamasapano, and with the BBL having failed in Congress, small clashes have erupted once more in central Mindanao as army units chase fighters from the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF, an MILF splinter group). By February 17, the clashes had resulted in around 15 deaths—ten from the BIFF, four civilians, and one soldier—with others wounded. As in the Mamasapano incident, MILF fighters were not the target of the operation. Yet again, an MILF spokesman on February 15 blamed the Philippine Army for not coordinating with the MILF when pursuing BIFF targets into MILF-controlled areas.7

The AFP’s chief representative to the peace process has said that they are counting on MILF leaders to control their fighters to prevent accidental encounters from escalating.8 Trusting in the MILF’s command and control mid-encounter instead of providing adequate notification through the AHJAG does not seem wise. This policy may well reduce the likelihood of leaks, but not without further bloodshed.

Perhaps AFP and PNP commanders see the mounting casualty count as inevitable in the line of duty. They may well see success in their limited counter-terror objectives, but they risk sacrificing the broader political goal for the Bangsamoro. Given the dynamic external security environment in Southeast Asia, it is in the AFP’s and PNP’s own interest that the situation in Mindanao be put to rest. Preserving the public’s faith in peace should therefore be paramount.

1 The Philippine government defines these communities or areas as considered those with a “considerable” concentration of MILF members. The clashes occurred in and near Datu Salibo and Datu Saudi Ampatuan in Maguindanao, central Mindanao.
2 “Filipino opinion on the Bangsamoro Basic Law and the Mamasapano Incident.” Social Weather Stations. 2015.
3 For an overview of the history, composition, and structure of the AHJAG, please refer to the OPAPP website.
4 Monzon, “Gov’t MILF, to continue joint units”.
5 “Chronology of Events: Tukanalipao, Mamasapano Incident”. Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process.
6 “The Mamasapano Report”, Philippine National Police – Board of Inquiry, March 2015, pp.55-56.
7 “MILF or BIFF? Confusion marks new Maguindanao fighting”, Tempo, 15 February 2016.
8 Albert F. Arcilla and Alden M. Monzon, “Red alert on, but gov’t, MILF maintain peace”, Business World, 7 February 2016.


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