Approaching the end of 1999, the non-technical end of the last century, there was a certain disquiet in Cagayan de Oro City. For some months already troops from Luzon and Visayas kept arriving to be hosted temporarily in the Army’s divisional camp there before being sent to Muslim areas. Of course there was already intermittent fighting in Cotabato and Lanao del Sur.
Soon there were whispers of war. Then President Estrada came. In a war-like tone he said he gave the MILF his personal guarantees that “he will treat them fairly” if they will give up their struggle but its leadership has been rebuffing him. He said he is ready to launch an “all-out war” to resolve the Mindanao problem.
When asked if it is true that there are already 36 battalions in Mindanao, President Estrada replied, “38!” And soon after that another two battallions arrived (and more after the war began).
Sometime early March the commander of a newly-arrived Army batallion near Kauswagan, Lanao del Norte sent a letter to Commander Bravo, commander of the MILF-BIAF’s then-2nd Division, demanding the return of an abandoned schoolhouse which Bravo was occupying. Reportedly a man of few words and having a short fuse, Bravo refused.
It must be noted that in 1997 the government and the MILF signed a ceasefire agreement and in 1999 the two sides held formal peace talks. In the process, the MILF submitted a list of 13 major and 30 satellite MILF camps for verification and recognition. However, when the count reached 7 major camps “noted”, hostilities started.
When the Army commander threatened attack, Bravo declared his “green line” and said he will fire upon any government forces that breach it.
Soon two tracked Army armored personnel carriers (M-113s) came. A Chinese B-40 rocket launcher was fired breaching the two sides of the APC and killing all the crew. The second APC beat a hasty retreat. All these were captured on video and shown uncut on Iligan City TV.
Soon a full-scale Army assault ensued. Unable to hold on to his camp, Bravo launched an attack on Kauswagan, Lanao del Norte. He was able to occupy the who town for 12 hours on March 17, 2000. This is the part of the war which the government highlighted as the “start” of the 2000 Mindanao war.
The MILF ransacked the police headquarters but they spared the municipal hall. Bravo withdrew from Kauswagan before the Army came (but medals were handed out for the “liberation” of the town). A handful of Muslim homes were set on fire by Christians in the aftermath.
For one week the private TV station in Iligan City covered the war uncensored, showing video footages from both sides including the Army’s “clearing” operations (all I saw of this were soldiers blanketing by gunfire any possible hiding space and animals running in all directions).
The radio stations of Iligan and Cagayan de Oro cities gave free rein to partisans of both sides. Exchanges readily escalated to the level of insults, taunts and threats. But I noticed that the Muslim partisans were more level-headed. The most searing was the question, “How can you call yourself Christians if you burn and ransack houses of your neighbors?”.
After one week the government threatened to close the stations. It was losing the propaganda war. The vivid coverage stopped but not the fighting.
The military assault spread throughout Mindanao. The famed Camp Abubakar and the Buliok complex (the MILF’s biggest camp) fell to government soldiers. President Estrada claimed victory when he was able to raise the Philippine flag in Camp Abubakar, the MILF’s central base.
And the Filipino people believed the war started with the MILF’s attack in Kauswagan. In the same way the people believe now that the recent war started with the MILF’s attack (again) in Kauswagan.