By Raïssa Robles
“The government has captured the hive but the angry bees have escaped and are regrouping to attack.”
A Moro National Liberation Front official said right after the fall of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front’s Camp Abubakar following President Joseph Estrada’s All-Out War in 2000
Ordinarily, the cost of this kind of internal conflict is shrouded in secrecy.
But in 2005, the United Nations sponsored a ground-breaking study entitled the Philippine Human Development Report. For the first time, a team led by Arsenio Balisacan examined the costs of conflict. Dr. Balisacan is Dean of the University of the Philippines School of Economics and Executive Director of the Philippine Center for Economic Development. Among the advisers for this Report was former Economic Planning Secretary and UP economics professor Solita Collas-Monsod.
The cost in terms of body count
The study found that during Estrada’s two and a half-year presidency, 471 Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) rebels and 222 government soldiers were killed.
We can presume that most of the fatalities occurred during the 2000 All-Out War.
In addition, during the same period, the MILF claimed 92 rebels were injured while the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) reported 270 injured – or 431 injured from both sides of the conflict.
There is no accounting here of civilians killed in the crossfire.
During last week’s Basilan clash between MILF rebels and government soldiers, 19 soldiers and at least five rebels and were killed.
An All-Out War would considerably increase that body count. And if one goes by the Year 2000 figures, total body count could reach several hundreds.
If the objective of a new All-Out War is to avenge the deaths last October 22 of the 19 soldiers, would the death of several hundreds more in such an operation be worth the cost?
You know what? The Christian majority in the country has always frowned upon and thought the concept of “rido” or vengeance killings among southern Philippine clans weird and barbaric. Wouldn’t avenging the deaths of the soldiers be like a state-sponsored “rido”?
An All-Out War would also have serious collateral damage on the citizenry
At the height of Estrada’s All-Out War in mid-2000, the number of refugees fleeing from the conflict swelled to 800,000 non-combatants. Imagine the trauma of leaving behind almost everything you own and had worked for because of the fighting.
An All Out War in Basilan could, however, result in a much lesser number of refugees (called Internally Displaced Persons or IDPs) because the island population there is only half a million.
Still, is it worth disrupting the lives of so many thousands? And would the military be breeding more rebels this way?
The formation of MILF camps in Basilan was an offshoot of Estrada’s All-Out War
Estrada is rightly credited for dismantling the MILF’s main headquarters, Camp Abubakar, and several other smaller camps. These had for years been a huge embarrassment and affront to the Philippine government and its sovereignty.
The gains of the All-Out War, however, turned out to be temporary. Other camps have sprouted in place of Camp Abubakar. And one of those camps is the one in Al-Barka, Basilan, near where the deadly firefight took place last week.
I was interviewing Allan Pisingan of the Basilan Human Rights Network and Bantay Ceasefire yesterday. I asked him why the MILF now has a camp in Basilan. As far as I knew, the traditional stronghold of the MILF was central Mindanao, never Basilan.
He told me that the MILF gained a foothold on the island after angry Muslims rallied to the call of jihad by the late MILF Chairman Hashim Salamat in response to Estrada’s 2000 All-Out War.
After Camp Abubakar fell and Estrada celebrated his military victory by holding a lunch of beer and lechon (roast pork) there – which angered and insulted the Muslims – I got to talk to the late Angelo Reyes who was then the Armed Forces Chief of Staff. He predicted that the rebels would switch to guerrilla warfare but “I believe only the hard-core would do it.”
The problem was, he could not say how many of the MILF were hard-core.
At that time, Congressman Roilo Golez also expressed misgivings over capturing Camp Abubakar. The former navy official warned that “a wounded tiger fights more fiercely.”
An official of the Moro National Liberation Front, which signed a peace pact with the government in 1996, put the problem in perspective. He told me then:
The government has captured the hive but the angry bees have escaped and are regrouping to attack.
Soon enough, they did by bombing the LRT on Rizal Day that yearend, killing 14 and injuring 100 commuters. That LRT bomb also hurt the national economy and instilled a sense of fear and helplessness in the nation’s capital.
The violent cycle has gone on and on and on.
Economic costs of an All-Out War
Neither the military nor the government has ever disclosed how much a massive military operation costs taxpayers. This has always been shrouded in mystery. But we can presume that the government diverts funding to these unbudgeted events.
For Estrada’s All-Out War, the military deployed at least two marine and two infantry battalions, or the equivalent of around 2,400 men, not just for days but for at least over a month. Think how many bullets and bombs they needed.
In Basilan, an M14 bullet can be bought in the black market for P30 each; while an M16 bullet for P25 each, according to Allan Pisingan. Each M14 magazine can hold from 10 to 30 bullets. Given these kinds of figures, Estrada’s All-Out War must have been horribly expensive.
That particular war, however, had little direct impact on the national GDP, the UN-sponsored report concluded. Because in the first place, Mindanao island’s contribution to the GDP is “not particularly large from the viewpoint of the national economy.” It comprises only around half a percentage point of the national GDP.
But the report also cited a paper written by Schiavo-Camp and Judd on the Mindanao conflict. The authors argued that an All-Out War in Mindanao would have “a larger implicit economic cost” in this manner:
There is anecdotal but persuasive evidence from the international investment banking community that the troubles in the island have adversely affected the image of the country as an investor-friendly venue. This is consistent with the evidence…to the effect that capital flight is a main result of civil conflict, with capital repatriation following a settlement of the conflict.
In the case of Mindanao, however, such capital flight (limited by the low level of the initial capital) has been compounded by a failure to attract the equity investment that could be expected based on the area’s location and factor endowments – investment which was deflected to other areas in East and Southeast Asia.
The report also noted that the resulting deaths would also mean loss of potential income that could have been generated by the slain combatants for their families. The report estimated the loss at P69,300 yearly for a soldier killed (based on a private’s monthly salary); and P27,443 per year per rebel killed. The latter is lower in value because the basis used was the average per capita income of the Philippines as of 2003.
The most telling effect of the continuing conflict in Muslim Mindanao
An All-Out war is a tremendously psychologically draining experience which could affect a person’s health. The UN-funded report decided to correlate the average life expectancy of residents in the most war-torn areas with those areas where residents seem to live longest.
Apparently, residents live longest in the following five provinces, based on 2003 government data:
Cebu – around 72.6 years old
Pampanga – 72.2
Batangas – 71.8
Bulacan – 71.4
Camarines Sur – 71.3
In contrast, residents of the following five strife-torn provinces in Muslim Mindanao seem to have the shortest average life span:
Basilan – 60.6 years old
Lanao del Sur – 57.9
Sulu – 52.8
Maguindanao – 52
Tawi-Tawi – 51.2
Wow. That’s a 10-year difference in life expectancy between Cebu and Basilan.
And a 20-year difference between Cebu and Maguindanao where the MILF is centrally based. And yet the rebels stay there to pursue their dream of a Bangsamoro Homeland through an armed struggle, despite being the object of several All-Out Wars.
Why Estrada wanted and needed an All-Out War in 2000
It is only by placing Estrada’s All-Out War in historical context that we can understand why he did it.
Before launching the All-Out War, the Estrada administration was reeling from several money scandals and from two humiliating incidents that put it in the global spotlight.
On March 20, 2000, the Abu Sayyaf grabbed 58 students and adults in Basilan and held them for ransom. The following month on April 22, 2000, the Abu Sayyaf again seized 21 mostly foreign holiday makers from the Malaysian island resort of Sipadan and brought them to Sulu to be ransomed off.
On top of this, Estrada’s popularity was tumbling from a fresh batch of scandals. A Catholic nun, Sr. Christine Tan who then headed the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office, disclosed that 87% or P430 million of the P495 million intended for its charity projects had been diverted to the offices of President Estrada, his wife, Luisa, and his son, Jinggoy.
Estrada’s Vice-President then – someone named Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo – warned that the fund diversion “will result in the waning trust of the people in the government.”
It was also around this time that the scandal over alleged insider trading of BW Resources shares broke into the news, along with two other money scandals implicating top officials and friends of Estrada.
A P304.9 million contract to buy fire trucks was allegedly cornered by a company that reportedly used as go-between two movie stars close to the movie actor-turned-President. Estrada ordered an investigation on the matter.
In addition, reports bared that the chief government lawyer, Solicitor General Ricardo Galvez, had brokered a deal involving the awarding of 4,689 hectares of a military reservation in Nueva Ecija to a private individual. Estrada ordered the deal scrapped.
What damaged Estrada’s presidency the most at this time was the surprising confirmation of his chief presidential palace aide Aprodicio Laquian of the existence of Estrada’s “midnight cabinet”. Laquian said that:
at 4 o’clock in the morning, I am the only sober person in the room [and that] if there is one person who is sober in the room who would be able to take all of these things that were signed and then hide them in my record book, then the decision-making will probably be, in the beautiful light of the morning, very rational.
You can read more about Laquian’s outburst here.
In light of all these, political analysts at that time expressed the belief that Estrada’s motives for launching an All-Out War were partly self-serving. He needed to shore up his sagging presidency.
Six months after Camp Abubakar fell, Estrada himself had been shooed out of office.
Why President Benigno Aquino III does not want nor need an All-Out War
It is true that among all presidents, PNoy has a big stake in keeping peace in Mindanao after having personally met with MILF chairman Murad Ebrahim and other key rebel leaders in Tokyo.
That, however, is only part of the reason.
The Aquino administration is about to embark on a bold, ambitious and multi-billion pesos plan to bring development to Muslim Mindanao using the Autonomous Region for Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) structure as the vehicle. It is still trying to persuade the MILF to be a partner in this experiment.
All these will come to nothing with an All-Out War.
But what about justice for the slain soldiers?
This is a question that’s been bothering me since the incident. The Republic has to stand by its soldiers.
This issue has been clouded, though, by the fact that neither the military nor the MILF has released a comprehensive post-battle report. We are being bombarded by confusing reports about what happened.
Meanwhile, the Army chief, Lt. General Arturo Ortiz, has already relieved two field commanders without any explanation.
Amid this confusion, President Aquino is faced with mounting criticism for not acting decisively and not ordering hot pursuit operations or an All-Out War at once.
And he is insisting on holding the peace.
And so we Filipinos are faced with the question – do we give peace a chance or go to war again?
To many of us, intermittent war in Mindanao has become so much a part of our reality.
A Cebuano named Jr. Kilat rightly pokes fun at this war mentality in his rap song entitled “M16”. You can listen to it below:
To download the 2005 Human Development Report, click on this link.