War, Propaganda and Drama: Zamboanga in Crisis

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Dozens of separatist rebels, who were fighting security forces in Zamboanga City in southern Philippines, had surrendered to the military, but police statistics remain at 24 further fanning speculations that some of those who yielded would be freed without criminal charges.

At least 23 of those who allegedly surrendered to the police in the village of Mampang last week were reportedly paid by a politician to stage the drama in an effort to demoralize the Moro National Liberation Front whose forces attacked several areas in Zamboanga.

The rebels, led by Commander Usong Ugong, are natives of Basilan province, and allegedly sent to Zamboanga to take part in the drama. Ugong’s group had been reported to have taken a police official hostage, but authorities had denied this and said officer was sent to Mampang to negotiate for the peaceful surrender of the rebels.

Police said at least 247 rebels had been captured since the fighting began on September 9.


But the military said 128 rebels were captured and 146 more had surrendered to soldiers. It said 126 MNLF fighters and 18 soldiers, including five policemen and 12 civilians were killed in the clashes that also wounded over 200 people.

Cadavers of rebels slain in the clashes also littered the villages affected by the fighting. Troops wore gas mask to pull out the decomposing bodies.

Rebel forces loyal to MNLF chieftain Nur Misuari attacked villages in Zamboanga and held over 200 people and used them as shield against security forces. At least 190 hostages had been freed or escaped from their captors.

Mayor Maria Isabelle Salazar said clearing operations continue in at least five villages – Santa Barbara, Santa Catalina, Rio Hondo, Mariki and Talon-Talon. She said text messages of impending rebel attacks caused panic in Zamboanga as skirmishes entered its third week.

Many offices and commercial establishment closed early and sent employees home following reports that rebel leader Ustadz Khabier Malik, a lieutenant of Misuari, would launch his final attack in Zamboanga along with his supporters.

“Day 19 of the Zamboanga crisis, we are filled with reports on the continuing circulating text messages and online scare about alleged retaliatory attacks by the lawless group in the city today,” she said. “Along this line, I appeal to all of you – please refrain from forwarding unverified text messages to avoid panic and confusion. These text messages and the online scare are part of the propaganda of the enemies of the state intended to sow terror and fear among the residents. Let us brace for more, as these kinds of text messages will continue to haunt us in the coming days.”

Salazar said military forces—in land, sea and air—are on alert and in place to maintain peace and order and to prevent any rebel reinforcement that will try to enter Zamboanga. She said curfew hours are still enforced in Zamboanga from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. until the situation returns to normal.

She also urged citizens to bring their identification cards and show these while passing to military and police checkpoints.

“The curfew will remain as this is our way of also helping our troops in efficiently carrying out their operations and heightened security in all our roads, entry and exit points. We also request all of our people to bring with them necessary identification cards for counter-checking and validation of all our residents, especially while passing through checkpoints,” Salazar said. “To all of us Zamboangueños, we shall not hold our guards down. We shall continuously defend our city and work to make our children’s future brighter and better.”

On Wednesday, Salazar allowed schools outside the conflict zone to reopen. The Mindpro Mall in downtown Zamboanga also reopened after shutting down two weeks ago because of the violence.

But surprisingly Interior Secretary Mar Roxas and Defense Chief Voltaire Gazmin, along with Social Welfare Secretary Corazon Soliman, were also present at the opening of a school in Santa Maria village and in the mall where Manila-based television journalists tailed and interviewed them.

Critics branded the presence of Gazmin, Roxas and Soliman as mere publicity and called them “epal,” a street slang for a person or politician who wanted to be in the middle of media publicity.

Roxas and Soliman previously gave media interviews inside a refugee tent in Zamboanga and at one time invited television reports to interview him at the pier where workers are hauling cargoes of relief goods.

Roxas, a key ally of President Benigno Aquino, is eyeing the presidency, while Soliman is said to be aspiring a senatorial seat in the 2016 national elections.

Policemen and soldiers were also deployed in schools and mall and other commercial establishments to ensure the safety of the public.

Misuari accused the Aquino government of reneging on a peace agreement signed 17 years ago and for abrogating a tripartite review of the accord.

The violence displaced more than 100,000 people.

As skirmishes erupted in Zamboanga, a new war is also heating up in social media – the battle for propaganda—where anti-government forces and pro-rebels have stepped up their attacks inflaming the already tense situation in Zamboanga.

In Facebook, Malik is now being immortalized by some groups as a hero for fighting their cause and self-determination in Mindanao – they called Bangsamoro Republik.

Others have blamed the Aquino government for all the violence that is happening not only in Zamboanga, but to the rest of the southern region where security are fighting several rebel and terrorist groups.

While some insisted that hundreds of government soldiers were killed and wounded in the fighting and that many of rebels slain in the clashes were actually civilians shot by security forces during military assaults.

The media were also being blamed for not reporting the mounting death toll on the military side, accusing radio and television reporters for covering up the casualties and engaging in the government propaganda war.

One photo showing a destroyed military tank in Syria was also posted on Facebook with a caption saying it was hit by a rocket fired by MNLF rebels.

There were also those who jubilantly praised rebel forces for killing the soldiers they branded as infidels as if the fighting had anything to do with religion.

But for pro-government forces, Facebook is a battle ground to praise the brave soldiers and policemen and all those who are running the operations to stop the rebels from further inflicting serious damages not only to physical structures in Zamboanga, but the very heart of everybody—Christians and Muslims and indigenous people—who are most affected by the violence.

Pictures of civilians handing out food and bottled water to soldiers and policemen battling the rebel forces and keeping them at bay also spread and went viral on Facebook.

President Benigno Aquino, who flew to Zamboanga with his Cabinet members and senior military and defense commanders to oversee the government efforts to feed over 100,000 refugees and end the crisis peacefully, have been largely praised on the social media.

Many civilians offered prayers on their Facebook timeline—posting verses from the Bible and the Quran—for troops fighting in the frontlines. And religious groups—Christian, Muslim and Evangelist—also offered prayers for the clashes to come to an end; others pray for Divine intervention believing only God can stop the bloodshed in Zamboanga and for the city to rise again from the ashes of war. Al Jacinto

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