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In a mater of a few weeks, the situation in Muslim Mindanao has changed radically.

On July 28, President Arroyo broke the happy news in her State of the Nation Address that a breakthrough in the peace negotiations with the MILF had just been achieved. Today, exactly a month thereafter, the full force of our armed forces is bearing down on the two largest military formations of the MILF in a theater of war extending from Sarangani to North Cotabato to Lanao del Norte.

What happened?

Well, everything that could possibly go wrong in a delicate peace process just went wrong.

Although talks with the MILF have been going on for 12 years now, scant attention has been paid it by the politicians, the media and the public at large. For nearly three years before that ill-fated memorandum of agreement was initialed in Kuala Lumpur last month, there has been a low-intensity debate going on around the concept of “ancestral domain.”

I recall at least 10 essays written in this space, engaging with that debate. My own position has largely been critical of the way the concept of “ancestral domain” was taking shape. Those essays drew reactions mainly from e-groups in Mindanao. Scarce attention have been paid those essays here in the national capital.

It is not true, as some anti-Arroyo partisans have claimed, that the negotiations were conducted on the sly. Progress in those negotiations have been dutifully covered by journalists who bothered to observe them. Their reports, accurate and analytical, have been consigned to the inside pages.

Television has not been kind, either, to what really is a conceptual debate. That medium is a sucker for highly visual events but is impervious to what might seem to be philosophical clashes. The lingering debate on the concept of “ancestral domain” remained in the margins of public consciousness.

And so it was that when the President announced a major breakthrough has been achieved, many thought they were hearing about “ancestral domain” for the first time.

The demagogues quickly hijacked coverage of the GRP-MILF memorandum of agreement with casual, usually ignorant, soundbites. They accused government of conducting the talks in secrecy and the administration of using the peace agreement to alter the Constitution in order to stay in power. Nearly everything the politicians have said so far have been non sequitur.

MILF chair Murad, in a recent televised interview blamed politicians aspiring to be president or senator in the 2010 elections for distorting public appreciation of the tentative agreement. On that score, I agree with him completely.

Perhaps the administration might be faulted for not putting enough effort at public diplomacy on behalf of the peace process. But even that failing is mitigated by the fact that it is tough to focus public attention on something that is not yet news.

When the so-called MOA-AD did become news, every politician and his brother jumped on it with the principal interest of grabbing media space for themselves rather than helping the public be properly informed. They tended, therefore, to put the issue in its most hysterical light: calling the MOA a means to “chop-chop” the Republic, accusing Malaysia and the US with having their own strategic interests in supporting the talks, and insinuating that ridiculous proposition that the peace talks was being used by the Arroyo administration to maintain itself in power.

The clarification of the matter was not helped by the administration’s abrupt decision to junk the MOA-AD. I may not be enthralled by this MOA either, but it presented an opportunity for the public to more acutely focus on the agenda of peace and the political complexities challenging the advancement of that agenda.

Unfair spinning of the issue by ambitious politicians produced a sense of chaos instead of clarity. That sense of chaos was aggravated by the atrocities committed by several large units of the MILF in the first weeks of August.

On hindsight, the attacks mounted by the so-called “renegade” units of the MILF is a logical reaction on the part of men who have spent the better part of their lives believing that there is everything to gain by the use of arms. Faced with a frustrating outcome to many years of complex negotiations, it seems perfectly natural for them to pick up their guns and overrun a few communities.

But that is not the only thing about these attacks.

The Maguindanao fighters led by Umbra Kato and the Maranao fighters led by Commander Bravo form what should be the best fighting units of the MILF-BMA. These units are the two legs on which Murad’s leadership stands in an increasingly factionalized movement. Together, these two regiments constitute a major portion of the MILF’s total fighting force.

Should the regiments led by Kato and Bravo be seriously decimated or absolutely degraded by the current “police action” mounted by our security forces, the MILF’s total fighting strength will be seriously weakened. The Murad leadership will be seriously undermined.

The more radical fighters and the more moderate political leadership will be seriously degraded at the end of this “police action.” That happens because the same leadership that has shown itself more amenable to talks is, within a deeply fissured movement, also dependent on the more militant fighting men to maintain its ascendancy.

Political outcomes are often defined by ironic processes. The MILF and the peace talks are not immune to that.

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