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OPINION

After Mamasapano, Burn It All Down?

March 17, 2015

Nigel Roberts, Former director, World Bank's 2011 World Development Report on Conflict, Security and Development Inquirer

The fallout from Mamasapano continues. Almost two months later, emotions are still running high. The government’s handling of the peace process is under the microscope. So, too, are the Moro Islamic Liberation Front’s credentials as a trustworthy peace partner. As you’d expect in a democracy, the tragedy is now grist in the mill of the 2016 presidential election.

Much more worrying, though, is the way some leaders are talking of delaying or even abandoning the Bangsamoro Basic Law.

I can sympathize with their frustration:

Mamasapano was a big deal, and confidence in the peace process has been shaken. But let’s think about this. What if the BBL does get set aside? What happens then?

There’s a strong possibility that Mindanao slides back into armed conflict, and the fragile boundaries separating those seeking a settlement and those who want no such thing disappear. There are quite a few people who want to keep this war going, such as the hardline ideologues on both sides and the war profiteers. And, of course, those politicians who thrive on lawlessness—the folks, in other words, who have gifted parts of Mindanao with 50 years of warlordism, corruption and injustice. They’ll be in the driver’s seat, and they won’t be complaining.

Does the experience of other nations emerging from long civil wars have anything to say to the Philippines at this dangerous moment? I believe so. Here are three things worth thinking about—two psychological, and one material.

The first is that war, peace and reconciliation are intensely emotional experiences, and thus need careful psychological management. Violence evokes anger, humiliation and the desire for revenge—passions that can drive all logic before them. This is why trust and belief are so vital to sustaining peace processes, even more important than concrete steps like ceasefires, peace agreements, constitutional amendments and reconstruction programs. When confidence in a peace process falters, as it is faltering now, it is essential that national and community leaders act to prevent hope from evaporating.

The second—and this isn’t a contradiction—is that it’s important to see what happened at Mamasapano in a broader context, difficult as that may be right now. History tells us that peace processes never proceed smoothly. Many fail outright, or take decades to get anywhere. Take Northern Ireland, inching its way toward peace over the last 30 years, beset by constant crises. As just one example: the assassination in 2009 of Ronan Kerr, a Catholic member of the new unified Police Service of Northern Ireland, by Catholic dissidents.

This murder could have traumatized the province, but leaders and the public from all sides refused to let this happen. Kerr’s funeral saw former enemies in church together for the first time, standing in defiance of those who wanted a return to war. As the BBC said at the time, “a murder designed to divide people has actually brought them closer together.” Setbacks are inevitable parts of a peace process; the question is how leaders respond. Do they have the guts to do what’s needed to restore public trust?

A proper accounting is needed if the nation is to put Mamasapano behind it. This will be tough, both for the government and for the MILF—but the costs of inaction or evasion could be deadly. The viral video is a part of this. All civil wars feature brutal crimes on both sides, and many perpetrators are never brought to justice.

When a crime becomes as public as that execution, though, it carries great destructive power, and it demands a political response. Of course, there are much larger injustices at stake than this single act. But a single act can sometimes change events in ways quite unforeseen at the time.

Many of us remember the iconic photograph of the Saigon police commissioner executing a Vietcong guerilla in the street in the 1968 Tet offensive. That photograph did untold damage to US public support for the South Vietnamese government’s war effort. More recently, Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor, set himself on fire in 2010—a single act by an unknown man that ignited the Arab Spring. No one should underestimate what the after-images of the Mamasapano killings could do if they are left to fester. Whichever group the murderer belongs to, convincing steps must be taken to punish him.

The third thing to bear in mind is that giving up on the peace process would be horribly expensive, in both human and material terms. The Mindanao conflict has claimed over 120,000 lives in the past 40 years, and has displaced 2 million people; economic losses have been estimated by the World Bank at $10 billion between 1975 and 2002.

War may enrich a few individuals, but it bankrupts nations. The World Bank’s 2011 World Development Report on global conflict shows that civil wars, on average, cost countries 30 years of GDP growth. It takes about 15 years to get back to prewar GDP growth rates, and 20 years for trade to recover.

Dramatic numbers like these have led me to see the postcolonial world as a tale of two kinds of state: those that have set war aside and have, by and large, prospered, and those that persist with war and remain poor. (Another powerful statistic: Countries experiencing major violence throughout 1980s and 1990s entered the new century with 20 percent more of their citizens poor than those that remained at peace.) Violence in Mindanao affects everyone in the Philippines—not just those who have suffered directly. Everyone’s prospects are compromised by a long, dirty war that compromises the country’s economic reputation.

Which brings me back to the Bangsamoro Basic Law. The proposed law might not be perfect, and it probably won’t fully satisfy everyone. But that is no reason to throw it under the bus in the wake of Mamasapano. Confidence in the peace process does have to be restored, but the law then needs to be passed. After years of effort, this is the Philippines’ best chance of achieving peace—of joining the prosperous club of nations that fight their battles in court, not in cornfields.




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