“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

As we stare into the deep abyss of a long-drawn asymmetric war in Mindanao, I remember Robert S. McNamara and his lessons of Vietnam in his book In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam:






“By the time the United States finally left South Vietnam in 1973, we had lost over 58,000 men and women, our economy had been damaged by years of heavy and improperly financed war spending and the political unity of our country had been shattered not to be restored for decades.

Were such costs justified?

2. We viewed the people and leaders in terms of our own experience…



This is a lesson we have yet to learn: to view the world from the perspective of the other. To be humble enough to accept that our view is not the only view. We always think that people think the way we think and that we are the “same”. We are not. The Bangsamoro people is different from us and we are invited to also view the world, history from their own perspective. This has been one of the central issues of the Mindanao problem: the denial of the distinct history and future of the Bangsamoro people. A history and a future that is distinct yet closely intertwined with ours.





3. We underestimated the power of nationalism to motivate a people to fight and die for their beliefs and values – and we continue to do so today in many parts of the world.

There is a emerging consciousness of a Bangsamoro community with an aspiration of a separate and independent Bangsamoro homeland. This is a reality. This cannot be denied. It is an imagination that cannot be extinguished by bullets and bombs. It is an imagination that is growing by leaps and bounds and further spurred by the violent denial and rejection by our national leaders and national media as shown by the whole MOA on AD brouhaha. Values and meaning are more powerful than bullets.

4. Our misjudgments of friends and foes alike reflected our profound ignorance of the history, culture and politics of the people in the area, and the personalities and habits of their leaders…

Ignorance and arrogance is a lethal combination. I am aghast by the audacity of some politicians who, while totally ignorant of the history, culture and politics of Mindanao and who have not even “cared” about Mindanao and its problems, heckled the loudest in goading government to unleash the “dogs of war”. The people of Mindanao – Christian, Lumad and Bangsamoro – will never forget them and teach them a lesson in 2010 and beyond. This will be a nightmare that will continually haunt them throughout their public lives.

5. We failed then – as we have since -to recognize the limitations of modern, high technology military equipment, forces and doctrine in confronting unconventional, highly motivated people’s movements. We failed as well to adapt our military tactics to the task of winning the hearts and minds of people from a totally different culture.

This is a lesson that most of our soldiers in the field already know but which most of our “arm-chair” politicians are clueless about. Those who have been in the field for the longest time know that the “hearts and minds” of the people are the battlefields and not some hill or “base camp”. There is a limit to what arms and what war can produce. The problem in Mindanao is a political problem and requires a political answer.

6. We failed to draw Congress and the American people into a full and frank discussion and debate over the pros and cons of a large-scale U.S. military involvement in Southeast Asia before we initiated the action.

This lesson is something we have painfully learned (and which we might pay dearly with the lives and property of our soldiers and civilians in succeeding months) in the past few weeks. Because we have been wanting in getting the Filipino nation in a “full and frank” discussion and debate over the MOA on AD, our people were misled by overly-biased Philippine media, by hysterical senators who warned about dismembering the country, by a Supreme Court that overstepped the bounds of its jurisdiction and local politicians who cloaked their vested self-interests with apparent public interests.

7. We failed to retain popular support in part because we did not explain fully what was happening and why we were doing what we did. We had not prepared the public to understand the complex events we faced and how to react constructively…A nation’s deepest strength lies not in its military prowess but, rather, in the unity of its people.

…Underlying many of these errors lay our failure to organize the top echelons of the executive branch to deal with the extraordinarily complex range of political and military issues, involving great risks and costs – including above all else, loss of life.

It is unfortunate that we are so divided as a people at this point in our national life. The political divisions and distrust drowned the real debate on the substance of the political settlement aimed to solve the Bangsamoro problem. We have conducted ourselves like bratty kids, totally incapable of solving our basic domestic problems. These are sad times for us Filipinos. ###



Game of chicken

Reviewing the events of the past few days, I am reminded of the “game of chicken”. In game theory, the phrase “game of chicken” is used as a metaphor for a situation where two parties engage in a showdown where they have nothing to gain, and only pride stops them from backing down.

Bertrand Russell once compared the game of chicken to nuclear brinkmanship:

Since the nuclear stalemate became apparent, the Governments of East and West have adopted the policy which Mr. Dulles calls ‘brinkmanship’. This is a policy adapted from a sport which, I am told, is practised by some youthful degenerates. This sport is called ‘Chicken!’. It is played by choosing a long straight road with a white line down the middle and starting two very fast cars towards each other from opposite ends. Each car is expected to keep the wheels of one side on the white line. As they approach each other, mutual destruction becomes more and more imminent. If one of them swerves from the white line before the other, the other, as he passes, shouts ‘Chicken!’, and the one who has swerved becomes an object of contempt. As played by irresponsible boys, this game is considered decadent and immoral, though only the lives of the players are risked. But when the game is played by eminent statesmen, who risk not only their own lives but those of many hundreds of millions of human beings, it is thought on both sides that the statesmen on one side are displaying a high degree of wisdom and courage, and only the statesmen on the other side are reprehensible. This, of course, is absurd. Both are to blame for playing such an incredibly dangerous game. The game may be played without misfortune a few times, but sooner or later it will come to be felt that loss of face is more dreadful than nuclear annihilation. The moment will come when neither side can face the derisive cry of ‘Chicken!’ from the other side. When that moment is come, the statesmen of both sides will plunge the world into destruction.

Sounds familiar? The events in Mindanao, if not handled properly, might turn into a “game of chicken”.

Solve the problem

This may sound simplistic but if there is one thing I would like to say to our national leaders, it is this: SOLVE THE PROBLEM!

We are trying to solve a real problem and it requires real solutions. Not legal ones.

There is war in Mindanao. There exists (irrespective of whether we like it or not, irrespective whether we believe their cause is just or not) an armed group of about 12,500 armed regulars who are calling for an independent Bangsamoro homeland. They demand independence and are willing to use force to attain their end. They do not recognize our Constitution. They do not recognize our government’s jurisdiction over them. They will not lay down their arms (even if we say “please”). What is our response? Please do not tell me that our response is a petition to the Supreme Court.

Well, there are 2 possible responses. First, we can go to war. Declare all-out war like what Estrada did and try to eliminate all the members of the MILF and its symphatizers until there is no one left to carry the aspiration for a separate Bangsamoro homeland or until they are so weakened by the war that they will be willing to surrender their aspirations and live under our command.

If we do not have the appetite for war, then peaceful political settlement is the way. But the solution will be clearly political, not legal. It will require new power-sharing arrangements. It will require “new” rules. It will require re-imagining age-old concepts of “sovereignty”, “territorial integrity”, and “democracy”.

The challenge then to our leaders who are serious about the peace process is propose new political arrangements, new rules. Once that solution is found, to call on their lawyers, their constitutionalists and find ways to implement the solution. It cannot be the other way around.

To our leaders: do not focus on the challenge in the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court may come out with a sound and well-researched decision. It may even be hailed as a legal “opus” but if the problem of conflict and war is not solved, if it does not bring an end to the war and violence in Mindanao, what good is that? What is the value of a legal victory if war persists?

The people are asking their leaders: how do we end the war in Mindanao? They are waiting for real answers, not press releases, not Supreme Court petitions. They have been waiting for over 30 years now. Will it all be in vain?

Yes, Virginia, peace talks will always be “extra-constitutional”

One can view “social conflicts” as arising from a dissatisfaction on how a particular “game” is played. It is the assertion of a disadvantage region or group of people (the “losers”) that the “rules” of the game are heavily stacked in favor of another party or parties (the “gainers”). To resolve “social conflicts” then requires a change in the “rules”. And since the ultimate rule in a constitutional state is the constitution, then peace process necessitates a change in the constitution. Peace process cannot be subject to the constitution. It is by nature extra-constitutional. To insist that peace talks should be in “accordance with the Constitution”, i.e. subject to the very “rules” that it seeks to change, is to completely misunderstand the essence of talking peace. Again, peace talks is about “rule-change”. It will always be “extra-constitutional”!

It is the assertion of the MILF that the “rules” of the game has led to the political and social marginalization and the economic disadvantage of the Bangsamoro people as a whole. They assert that the present “game” is defective because, whatever the configuration, whatever the arrangement, in the end, the “Bangsamoro people” will always be the “losers”. For the MILF, the present “rules” has led to grinding poverty and powerlessness of the Bangsamoro people vis-a-vis Philippine mainstream society. It is for this reason that they are asking for a change in the “rules” — greater political autonomy, greater control of resources, a defined territory, etc.

The Philippine Government has basically 2 ways to respond to this demand. First, they can dismiss the demand outright, insist that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with “rules” and require absolute compliance to it and if the MILF remains recalcitrant, to compel obedience to the “rules” by the use of force.

On the other hand, Government can go into peaceful political negotiations with the MILF by admitting that there is something fundamentally wrong with the “rules” of game, negotiate new “rules” to respond to the Bangsamoro problem and then, change the old “rules” accordingly.

Government has clearly chosen the second track and has put forward the MOA AD as part of the package of “new rules” that are offered to end the long-standing conflict in Mindanao. To demand that the Government’s talks with the MILF be within the ambit of the Philippine Constitution and prohibit it from discussing matters which are prohibited or not allowed by the present Constitution is to call for a reconsideration of Government’s chosen track. It calls for a re-evaluation of the policy of the “primacy of the peace process”. It is to say that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the “rules” of the game, that they do not need any changing at all.

Will this track of insisting that there be no discussion of “rule change” lead to durable peace in Mindanao? Will it solve the basic social conflict? ###