After Nur Misuari’s declaration of independence of the Bangsa Moro Republik in Talipao, Sulu on August 12, 2013, his more than 200 armed Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) followers led by Ustadz Habier Malik sneaked into the coastal villages of Zamboanga city on September 9, 2013, to hoist the Bangsa Moro Republik flag at the front of the city hall.
Maria Isabelle Climaco- Salazar, the mayor of the City, refused to give in to the demand of the armed groups, and this led to firefights between the combined city police and the military personnel that were assigned in the area against the intruding militants. The fighting forced civilians to leave their homes and to evacuate in safer places at the heart of the city. As the fighting continued more people left their homes to seek refuge in evacuation centers. In addition, the conflict forced business, schools, airports and other establishments to shut down. Mayor Climaco sought the assistance of the national leadership to help her deal with the crisis.
President Benigno S. Aquino III ordered Manuel Roxas III, his DILG Secretary, to go to Zamboanga to oversee the police operation against the militants. As the battle raged on and the number of evacuees increased, the president also ordered Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin and AFP Chief of Staff Gen Emmanuel Bautista to go to Zamboanga to further strengthen police and military actions there. Later, the president who is also the commander in chief of the police and the armed forces joined his troops in Zamboanga.
Having previously warned Misuari’s group that the government would not hesitate to use its power and its resources against those who would break the law, the president made good his words. Aside from the troops that were already on the ground, he called in the most elite fighting units of the Armed Forces of the Philippines such as the Scout Rangers and the Special Forces to further strengthen his forces. In addition air assets and naval ships were also directed to bear down on the militants.
The forces of Misuari led by Ustadz Habier Malik however were unyielding. Since they could not engage the government forces head on, they took some civilians as hostages to shield themselves from government forces’ fires. The militants were even accused of deliberately burning houses to conceal themselves and slow down the advance of government forces.
Eventually, the MNLF forces were pushed and constricted into the coastal villages but were still holding some hostages and exchanging fires. Despite their difficulties, the militant refused to capitulate and gave the government forces as good as what they got. They might have think that by prolonging the battle as long as it take would exacerbate the crisis and bring it to the attention of international media, the intervention of the United Nations or the Organization of Islamic Conference. Moreover, the destruction of homes and properties, the paralysis of businesses and the increasing number of evacuees were about to create a humanitarian crisis in the city. These situations might prompt the government to initiate a ceasefire, a development that would be favorable to the militants.
Meanwhile, Vice President Jejomar Binay had a communication with Nur Misuari on a ceasefire between the government forces and the latter’s armed group. The Vice President then reported to the president in Zamboanga to present his proposal to him. However, the president turned down the idea.
Apparently the president made the right move in rejecting a ceasefire because it would enable Misuari’s troops who participated in the siege to get away with their deeds. A ceasefire could also be misinterpreted that it was the militants who had the control of the situation, and Misuari might later exploit it to his advantage. A ceasefire would also have given a morale boost to the remaining MNLF fighters and restore the sagging image of Misuari as a leader of the Moros. On the other hand, a ceasefire declared by the commander-in-chief when his troops had already taken a number of casualties, and when they were in the upper hand in the battle would have demoralized them.The surrender of the militants to end the fighting would have been more acceptable to them.
With no ceasefire effect, the remaining militants took a beating from the government forces. As the fighting continued, they ran low on ammunition, and they starved because their supporters could not penetrate food supplies past the cordon of troops. Slowly but surely, the remaining militants surrendered or were killed. It was a surrender or die situation for them. On September 28, 2013, the government declared an end of military operations when all of the remaining hostages were rescued by the soldiers. However, the fate of Habier Malik, the leader of the militants in the siege of the city is still unknown. He was not among those who were captured or had surrendered, and the troops could not identify him among the dead militants either.
The government declared the end of the crisis on September 28, 2013. But losses in terms of lives and cost of properties were enormous. The MNLF suffered 183 killed and 192 members captured. The government forces had 25 soldiers (two officers) killed and 184 wounded. On the civilian side there were 12 dead and 70 wounded. There were about 10,000 houses that were burned and more than one hundred thousand people were displaced. It is estimated that the government must have to spend billions of pesos to rehabilitate Zamboanga City and help its people that were affected by the armed conflict.
The government forces under the leadership of President Benigno Aquino III have decisively defeated the forces of Nur Misuari in the siege of Zamboanga. Many however are perturbed with the massive destruction suffered by the city as a result of the siege. But it is the responsibility of the president to impose his powers under the law to protect his people and assert state’s sovereignty even if the price of doing so is heavy.