On January 25, more than 50 people were killed in a major clash between the Philippine national police (PNP) Special Action Force and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) rebels in the southern Philippines. The incident, which happened to occur on the eve of the founding anniversary of the PNP, threatens to undermine a peace deal reached by the two sides in March last year which ended nearly a half-century of bloody conflict.
The government says that Sunday’s clashes, which lasted nearly 12 hours, occurred as PNP personnel were pursuing notorious terrorist and Malaysian bomb expert Zulfikli Bin Hadir in MILF territory, who is on America’s most wanted list. The fighting reportedly involved both the MILF as well as the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, a breakaway faction with whom the government has not signed a deal with. The MILF says the government should have notified it in line with an existing peace agreement and ceasefire, and that it was merely acting in self-defense. But the grisly footage of the incident and the rising death toll has stirred passions among some in the Southeast Asian state.
Given the seemingly endless twists and turns in the Philippine peace process over the years, it may be tempting to dismiss this incident as just another blip. But this particular incident comes at a pivotal time. The Philippine government, led by President Benigno Aquino, is aiming to pass an enabling law to the peace deal it signed with the MILF – the Bangsamoro Basic Law – by the first quarter of 2015 before Congress goes into a long summer break. Passing the law by then would ensure that a required referendum can be held there before the Aquino administration’s term expires following elections in May 2016.
Previously, leading Philippine lawmakers had said that this was possible, and even demonstrated flexibility in trying to schedule expedited hearings so that debate could be wrapped up before the last session day on March 18. But the incident has thrown a spanner in the works. On Monday, some scheduled hearings on the proposed law were canceled. A separate hearing on the clash itself could potentially hold up existing deliberations. The incident has also emboldened opponents of the law who say this is further proof that the MILF is an unreliable partner and that signing the agreement was a mistake. Rising opposition to the law is the last thing the Aquino administration needs when it is trying to institutionalize the gains it has made as quickly as possible.
It is too early to tell where this is all heading. The government and MILF are in informal talks to ensure that the incident does not undermine the entire peace process. Both sides still do have much to gain from keeping the peace despite the recent hiccup, and the Aquino administration will no doubt want to seal what will be one of its crowning achievements. But the clash is yet another bloody reminder of the folly of declaring victory too early in a still fragile peace process.