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Last September 9, the whole country was taken by surprise when news broke that members of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) invaded Zamboanga City, taking civilians hostage in their attempt to declare their independence. This resulted in a violent standoff between the rebels and the government troops that has displaced hundreds of the province’s residents and has paralyzed the city’s economic activity. Here’s a brief summary of what has been happening since the fighting began.
1. WHAT IS THE MNLF, AND WHY DID THEY ATTACK ZAMBOANGA CITY?
The Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), a rebel group founded by former professor Nur Misuari in 1971, has been prodding the government to make Mindanao an independent state since its inception. Though the MNLF signed a peace deal during President Fidel Ramos’ term in 1996, resulting in the creation of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), the country’s next leader, President Joseph Estrada, declared an all-out war against the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which was formed by MNLF hardliners who broke away in their desire to make ARMM a fully independent state. Gloria Arroyo’s term was also marked by recurring attacks between the government troops and both the MNLF and the MILF. In 2012, after several peace talks with the MILF, President Benigno Aquino III was finally able to negotiate a peace deal with the rebel group. However, Misuari said that the MILF deal would allegedly violate the government’s previous deal with the MNLF. He pushed for Mindanao’s complete independence and encouraged his troops to take over key areas in the region, starting in Zamboanga City.
2. WHAT HAS BEEN HAPPENING IN ZAMBOANGA SINCE THE MNLF’S ATTACKS?
The fighting started when the government troops encountered MNLF rebels in different barangays in Zamboanga City on September 9. According to Mayor Isabelle Climaco-Salazar, the rebels were planning to raise the Bangsamoro Republik flag at the Zamboanga City Hall. The situation got worse in the following days as the MNLF troops started torching houses and buildings across the city. The rebels were also able to capture a number of civilians. However, negotiators have been somewhat successful in convincing the gunmen to release a number of their hostages. The fighting has also spread to the nearby province of Basilan, where the MNLF troops were joined by Abu Sayyaf troops and Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters.
3. HOW HAS THE CRISIS AFFECTED ZAMBOANGA’S RESIDENTS?
As of September 15, at least 51 MNLF members and 6 government soldiers and policemen have died since the skirmish began. At least 56 people have also been wounded in the fight. Thousands of Zamboanga residents were forced to evacuate from their homes to escape the violence in their hometown. However, a number of people living in the war-torn barangays of Rio Hondo, Sta. Barbara, Talon-Talon, and Sta. Catalina were unable to leave as they might get caught in the crossfire.
4. WHAT HAS THE GOVERNMENT DONE ABOUT THE CRISIS?
Interior Secretary Mar Roxas, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin and AFP chief-of-staff Gen. Emmanuel Bautista flew to Zamboanga on September 9 so they can monitor the situation there. President Aquino, who followed on September 13, has promised that he will not hesitate to resort to more drastic measures if the rebels were to harm their hostages or cause more destruction. The Department of Health has instructed all health workers in the area to be ready for duty any time, and the Department of Justice has already formed a team of lawyers to prosecute the rebels. Vice President Jejomar Binay has attempted to negotiate a ceasefire with Misuari that was scheduled to be enforced on September 14, but this did not push through.
5. HOW HAS THE INTERNATIONAL COMMUNITY RESPONDED TO THE ZAMBOANGA CRISIS?
In lieu of the crisis, the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and Hong Kong have issued warnings against traveling to the Philippines. Both the United Nations and the European Union have also called for an end to the fighting in the region and had urged both sides to reach an agreement as soon as possible.
(Screencap via YouTube)