DAVAO CITY, Philippines (UPDATED) – It was a crisis that not only caught government by surprise but also exposed its failure to make fast decisions at crunch time.
The bloody Zamboanga siege in September 2013, which lasted 3 weeks and left more than 200 killed, damaged Muslim villages in the city and broke the ties between the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the government. The MNLF, which signed a peace agreement with the Ramos government in 1996, led the siege to protest the alleged failure of the Aquino administration to implement the provisions of the peace pact.
Speaking before a hall packed with politicians, civil society leaders and supporters all clad in yellow, Aquino highlighted Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas II’s role in 3 crises that all happened in 2013: the Bohol quake, the Zamboanga siege, and the aftermath of Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan).
In those instances, Aquino said, Roxas “risked his life” just to attend to the needs of those affected right away.
“Sa kanyang trabaho bilang ating kalihim, ilang pagkakataon na isinugal niya ang buhay niya para totohanang matutukan ang pangangailangan ng ating mga kababayan kaagad-agad? Sa Zamboanga, noong krisis, nauna siya sa akin. Nauna na siya sa akin, nahuli pa siyang umalis sa akin,” said Aquino. (In Roxas’ work as Cabinet secretary, how many times has he risked his life just so he could attend to the needs of our countrymen right away? During the Zamboanga crisis, he went before I did. Not only did he get there before I did, he also stayed on for longer.)
On September 9, 2013, members of the Nur Misuari-led faction of the MNLF attempted to take over the city. The siege lasted for over a month before the government finally declared that they had overwhelmed rebel forces. It was Roxas himself who declared the crisis over.
“Sinuong niya lahat ng lugar doon, pinuntahan ang mga nasunugan nating kababayan, dinamayan, nagdala ng relief, at hindi umalis hanggang na-normalize na po ‘yung sitwasyon doon,” added Aquino. (He went to all the areas, visited our countrymen who lost their home. He sympathized, brought relief and he did not leave until the situation normalized.)
The President himself was in Zamboanga for almost two weeks during the siege.
But during the first week of the siege, Rappler reported that the chain of command wasn't as clear cut. Security forces were reporting to various commanders and public officials, each burdened with each sector's agenda. The crisis committee was a heavy mix of national and local figures – notably Roxas and Mayor Isabella "Beng" Climaco-Salazar – with very different views on how to proceed.
When the President arrived in the city to step in, he was met with angry questions from local officials. "What drama is this, Mr President," asked one official in a meeting with the President on Day 5 of the siege, September 13, 2013. (READ: Zamboanga crisis: The fog of war)
Zambo left hanging?
On the second anniversary of the siege, Roxas recalled the crisis in a Facebook post on his official page on Wednesday, September 9.
“Hi, fellow veterans of the Zamboanga siege. Happy anniversary! Just wanted to take a moment and reflect and thank you for your leadership and commitment to the welfare of our people and country. Maraming salamat. Being with you all those 21 days has touched me indelibly. Know that our country stands strong and our flag flies high because of you and the men and women like you. We battle on! Mabuhay ang Pilipinas,” read the post, which was originally posted at 8:28 am on Wednesday.
It was later revised to remove the line “Happy Anniversary” after he got flack on social media. Two days later, Roxas issued a statement to clarify the social media post.
The post, he said, was meant to recall the siege, which was a "test" of the "determination and resillience" of Zamboangeños. It was the "courage and discipline" of the military, police, and the unity of locals "ay patunay ng pangingibabaw ng batas at peace and order (proof that the law and peace of order prevailed)."
"It was in this sense that I greeted our compatriots and comrades. To those who may have taken offense, none was intended," added Roxas.
The siege is still a sore point among locals. The problems in Zamboanga City, after all, persist.
In the months, and even years following the month-long military assault, the hardships of those caught in the crossfire only grew. Evacuees stayed in makeshift tents at a coliseum because a relocation site was not made available right away.
Last July, more than a month before he was officially a 2016 presidential candidate, Roxas and Social Welfare Secretary Dinky Soliman visited Zamboanga to inaugurate newly-constructed recovery shelters for some 1,500 refugees.
At least 200 more people, civilians whose homes were razed by the siege, died after because of the bad conditions in their makeshift shelters. (READ: Zamboanga still under siege)
The Zamboanga siege, the post-Yolanda crisis and even post-Bohol earthquake response are expected to be sore points for Roxas’ 2016 campaign, issues his political opponents are likely to throw again at him and the Aquino administration.
Roxas is banking on the promise of continuity and certainty. The ruling Liberal Party wants voters to see Roxas as a continuation of the supposed reforms of the Aquino government and its gains in good governance, transparency, weeding out corruption, poverty alleviation, and the economy.
‘Mar wasn’t there for brownie points’
Aquino took a jab at political opponents during his speech, contrasting their supposed attention-seeking ways against Roxas’ work. “Ano ba ang pinagkaiba ni Mar sa mga ibang masasabi nating naghahangad ng puwesto? Si Mar ho nagbabad (How is Roxas different from other who seek the presidency? Roxas immersed),” said Aquino.
The President, who was visibly at ease and delivered his speech off-the-cuff, added: “Bago dumating si Yolanda, nandoon na hanggang nakalma ang sitwasyon, hanggang napanumbalik ‘yung mga tinatawag na basic services tulad ng tubig, tulad ng kuryente. Hindi ho dumating, nagdala ng ilang pirasong relief goods, nagpalitrato, nagpa-video, ‘May malasakit ako.’ Wala akong pinapatamaan. Bato-bato sa langit na lang.”
(Even before Yolanda made landfall and until the situation normalized, until basic services like water and power returned, Roxas was there. He didn’t just arrive, give away some relief goods, take photos and videos and say: ‘I care for you.’ I’m not referring to anyone in particular. But if the shoes fits...)
The Wednesday “Gathering of Friends” in Davao was the third in a series of campaign sorties for Roxas, attended by Aquino and his Cabinet officials.
Neither Aquino nor Roxas granted chance interviews with media after event, which lasted a little over an hour. – Rappler.com