The "Who, What, Where, Why, and How" of the Whole Situation

Examining the History the Southern Philippines' Zamboanga Crisis

On September 28, 2013, the National Defense Chief of the Philippines said that the three-week long standoff that began on September 9 between the Philippines government forces and the Muslim rebel group was finally over.  In a crisis that ultimately traces back to centuries of conflict between the Philippine government and Muslim rebels, it can be hard to keep up with all the information.  Since it probably would take more than one article to fully explain the history behind the crisis, here is the “who, what, where, why, and how” of the current situation.

So who are the rebels in the first place?

The main rebels surrounding the whole crisis are the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.  The MNLF is a Muslim separatist group that was founded by by Nur Misuari, a former university lecturer and Moro politician best known for his attempts at gaining independence of the Bangsamoro region from the Philippine government, in 1969.  The Bangsamoro region defined by the MNLF is Sulu, Mindanao, Palawan, and Sabah.  The MNLF is internationally recognized and, as of 1977, is an observing member of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the second largest intergovernmental organization after the United Nations.  The MNLF also became an observer member of the Parliamentary Union of Islamic Cooperation (PUIC) in 2012.  They also have a large military force called the Bangsa Moro Army that had around 30,000 fighters back in the 1970s.  Due to some conflicts within the MNLF, the group weakened.  The result was the formation of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), a more militant group that has a stronger focus on Islamic roots than the MNLF.

I keep hearing about hostages, human shields, etc.  What exactly happened?

It would take quite a bit of time to describe every single event that took place during the three weeks because so much was going on (this should do the trick), but here’s a gist of the overall picture:

The three week confrontation started on September 9, 2013 when a statement issued by Zamboanga City’s Mayor Climaco-Salazar said that at around 4:30 in the morning, government forces ran into armed rebels who killed six people, including four civilians, a navy serviceman and a policeman. On that same first day, at least 100 rebels tried to seize city hall.  Up to 220 people were held “unofficially” hostage.  Work, school, and all public operations were suspended and a curfew was imposed.  

Fighting resumed into the the next day where about 200 being held by the rebels were used as human shields.  Alleged rebel group leader Ustadz Khabir Malik hinted that the 1,500 fighters were in Zamboanga and more were arriving the next day.  He stated that they would not leave until they successfully gained independence from the Philippines.  Flights to and from the city were closed, as well as banks and most government services.

Throughout the three weeks, more people were taken hostage, several deaths occurred, several more were injured, all in the rebel group’s attempt to attain independence from the Philippines.  

A very detailed timeline that traces the relationship between the rebel groups and the Philippine government from the beginning of the MNLF to the recent crisis can be found here.  

Where is Zamboanga anyway?

Zamboanga, considered “Asia’s Latin City”, is located in the southernmost and second largest island of Mindanao.  With 774,407 residents registered in the 2007 Census and a total land area of 1,483.3849 square kilometers, it is the sixth largest city in terms of population and the third largest in terms of land area.  To the north lies Zamboanga del Norte and Zamboanga del Sur, the Basilan Strait and the Celebes Sea to the south, the Sulu Sea on the west, and the Moro Gulf on the east.  Zamboanga is also considered the “gateway to Southeast Asia”, being the nearest major urban center to its ASEAN neighbors:  Malaysia, Brunei, Sarawak, Singapore, and through to Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, and Southern China.

Why are the rebels doing this exactly?

As complex as all the events make it seem, the answer is simple.  They have wanted independence since the early 1970s, when Nur Misuari founded the MNLF with the intent of creating an independent state in Mindanao.  The relationship between the MNLF and the Philippine government since then has been surrounded by a cycle of agreements, talks, outlashes, and fights.  In 1996, the Philippine government which at the time was under the administration with former President Ramos, created a peace accord with MNLF called the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) which basically put leader Nur Misuari as the Region’s governor.  

Just as soon as the agreement started to form into what may have looked like a solution to the many years of disagreements between the rebel group and the Philippine government, the MILF formed as a split-off group from the MNLF and continued with acts of insurgency, once again putting the cycle in motion.  In 2012, a Framework Agreement was created in hopes of finding a resolution between the MILF and the Philippine government which analysts say is what tipped off the MNLF attacks. On August 12, 2013, Misuari once again declared independence for the southern Philippines, prompting the attacks, and stating that the provisions being negotiated in the final peace treaty between the MILF and the Philippine government would violate the 1996 ARMM agreement with the MNLF.

Well, the news says that the crisis is over!  How is everyone dealing with this?  

Now that the Zamboanga crisis is “over”, no one really knows what is going to happen.  One thing for sure is that its going to take a whole lot of work to get Zamboanga City back to normal.  

According to Zamboanga’s Mayor Beng Climaco, the crisis is far from over.  Climaco said after the confirmation, “The fighting might be over, but the crisis continues on as we have to face reality hence forward.”  Tens of thousands of residents have lost their homes with at least 100,000 of them being housed in more than 50 shelters.  According to the U.N, the standoff resulted in about 132 deaths, about 158,000 people have been affected, nearly 10,000 homes have been destroyed, and over 109,000 residents have lost their homes and are now displaced.  In the Basilan province, another island in which the rebels lay siege, nearly 19,000 residents are displaced.  The main sports complex in Zamboanga City is said to be overcrowded and lacking in sufficient sanitation facilities, sheltering around 70,000 people.  The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) warns that there is an urgent need for essential necessities like food, drinking water, health services and more, as well as there an risk of a disease outbreak.  Philippines researcher for Human Rights Watch, Carlos Conde, said to TIME, “we are seeing a rise in gender-based violence because of the length of time people are staying there [sports complex] –– rape and molestation are expected to increase.”

The estimated cost of damage to the city is about P200 million, and about P5 billion are said to be lost in trade and commerce as a result.  Local government officials had plans of moving back into City Hall on Monday, September 30.  The Department of Social Welfare and Development are said to begin building around 150 to 200 homes in October and are currently in the process of finding new building sites for displaced families.  The mayor said that all hostages have been freed and that close to 90% of the rebels have been captured.

All in all, getting Zamboanga back on track is the priority and solving this several decade will be difficult and speaking with Misuari and the MNLF will just be a step.

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