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Fresh hope for talks with MILF

By BETH FRONDOSO

ICG does not see breakaway group as major threat to peace

MANILA, Philippines – The obstacles to peace in Mindanao are “enormous” as the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) return to the peace table this April, but an invigorated government panel “has brought fresh air to the process.”

This assessment was made by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG), a non-profit organization working to prevent global conflict in its latest brief.

When President Aquino took office, peace in Mindanao was one of the promises he made. To the chagrin of the MILF, the Aquino administration took a long time forming its team and resuming talks with the group.

Later events proved the delay had something to do with the issue of the facilitator country. Initially, the Philippine government wanted to do away with a third-party facilitator altogether, but the MILF disagreed, seeing it as a move to localize the talks.

The government eventually agreed on Malaysia as facilitator country, but wanted to replace chief Malaysian facilitator Datuk Othman Razak. The reasons for the rejection of Othman remain sketchy.

Initial feedback from the government said he was biased; later it was said that the Philippines preferred a facilitator with diplomatic background. (Othman comes from the intelligence community.)

To say the hurdles are huge may even be an understatement.

Ameril Umbra Kato

Ameril Umbra Kato

The biggest challenge facing the MILF are its renegade men, among them Ameril Umbra Kato, Abdullah Macapaar alias Commander Bravo and Aleem Pangalian.  Of the three, Kato has the greatest clout. A war veteran, an ulama, and an ethnic Maguindananaon, Kato is respected in the ranks. Last year, he broke away from the MILF army and formed a separate  group, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF).

In a video message sent to the media, Kato claimed he still considers the MILF the “only Bangsamoro liberation force”.

The Murad leadership confirmed they haven’t quite “burned their bridges” with him yet.

While the ICG considers Kato’s threat to the talks as serious, the think tank does not see Kato as a major obstacle to peace. Not yet anyway.

The presence of renegade commanders also raises concerns over how much in control MILF leader Al Haj Murad Ebrahim is.

Al Haj Murad Ebrahim

MILF leader Al Haj Murad Ebrahim

In 2005, the Murad leadership, struggling to prove it does not coddle terrorists, expelled Jemaah Islamiyah members Dulmatin and Umar Patek from its areas. But in a loose organization spread over a wide terrain, the commanders are very much left to their own devices.

At this point, military officers hesitate to dwell on the terrorist links of the MILF, mainly because it weakens Murad, the government’s main partner in the peace process. However, there is little doubt that some MILF commanders have their links abroad.

Lately, MILF elements or their renegade counterparts were accused of drug trafficking and kidnapping. While these internal problems persist, does this mean the MILF is no longer a monolithic group?  Military sources say it still is.

Major hurdle

The think tank as well as Newsbreak sources said the government accepts the idea of an “autonomous sub-state” in principle, a highly contentious issue from past years because it is seen as a violation of Philippine sovereignty.

Refusing to telegraph any moves, government panel chairman Marvic Leonen is adamant that the government has no stand yet, even in principle, on the framework of a “sub-state”.

Sources told Newsbreak this is the core of the panel’s renewed enthusiasm—something substantial the MILF can sink its teeth into—a dynamic autonomy with enough revenue muscle. But unlike the doomed 2008 Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain, the government will not allow expansion of territory to areas dominated by Christians.

Still, creating an autonomous sub-state that will stay within constitutional parameters and still be a revolutionary departure from the moribund ARMM would be a Herculean task.

Prospects for peace

The ICG predicts three possible endings: negotiated settlement; more of the same; or failure.

But isn’t this just a matter of success or collapse?

Is it reasonable to expect an ending that sits between success and failure? Will the political dynamics within the MILF leave room for an “endless ceasefire”?

Given the political vulnerability of the Murad leadership, will it survive the intensified internal struggle resulting from empty talks? This may well be Murad’s last straw before he takes a more radical path or before his leadership suffers a coup.

During the last Murad press conference, MILF panel chair Mohagher Iqbal admitted that Kato has been accusing his superiors of “revisionism.” That may very well be the heart of the conflict within the MILF— the moderates who realize the futility of pursuing a Caliphate in an increasingly Christianized land versus the secessionists who still dream of an independent Muslim state in Mindanao.

And a collapse of the peace talks may result in further fragmentation, as in the 1980s when the Moro National Liberation Front’s peace treaty resulted in the breakaway of what is now the dominant MILF.

Yet, the new peace panel formed by the government and led by Leonen has made key sectors in Mindanao optimistic. This team knows the law and is expected to avoid committing the mistakes of the past.

The coming months should be able to prove—or disprove—that. - Newsbreak

 

CATEGORY: Commentary, Defense & Security
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  1. The GPH and MILF is now gaining united support from civil society groups since the MILF declared a wider consultations enouraging all sectors to participate. Also, another backup of SPMUDA Ngo (the leading conglomerate of Muslim NGOs) with silent majority Muslims followers in all Muslim communities in Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao also declared an all-out support that peace will be finally achieved. Believe me that Comdr. Kato will not be a serious threat. He is an Ulama and later he will change his mind.This initiative of President Aquino through OPAPP cannot be compared to the peace talk or peace process in the past. Now,the support of civilians coming out one by one is a good sign.

  2. The GPH and MILF is now gaining support from all sectors. We agreed with ICG observation that breakaway group is not a serious threat.
    The silent majority (SPMUDA Muslims leading NGOs) is leading also in peace campaign. Believe me, the breakaway group will change their mind.

  3. Abdulbasit Z. Sulaiman says:

    MILF-GPH peace talk is a hope of the Bangsamoro people and the Filipino people. Aquino or PNOY government and Barak Obama of America are a hope of a oppressed people.

  4. Abdulbasit Z. Sulaiman says:

    Hope and pray…Almighty Allah open our heart and mind to give peace a chance to live Bangsamoro and the Filipino people side by side with peace, development, security, and equal rights on pursuits of happiness.

    Billions of money for bullets must be converted to development funds for agriculture, education, and health.

  5. Roger Lorenzo says:

    MILF has Kato and his group as their last card. Alam ng liderato ng MILF ang kanilang gusto. Binibingwit lang nla ang GPH to give as much and at the end they will hold on to their guns and control a much larger land area and resources para pag hati-hatian nilang mga nasa liderato, leaving pang karaniwang moros mahirap na tulad ng datiparin.Peace ay hindi makakamtan sa ganyang scenario.Tingnan natin at pag- aralan ang nangyari sa Sri Lanka.Kailangan ay resolve ni Pang. Aquino III at ng sambayanan Pilipino na tapusin ang MILF.Declare martial law in MILF areas and go after the MILF leadership.Only then peace and posperity will come otherwise Mindanao will remain in poverty forever.

  6. Anthony Benavidez says:

    Let us emulate the United States in terms of being a melting pot of many races, and having religious freedom. The Americans don’t care if you are a Muslim, Jew, Christian, Buddhist, pagan, etc. for as long as you are not a terrorist, you can live in peace in the United States. This is what we want also in the Philippines. Our relation with God is holy. Let us be united and live peacefully together in this land we called Mindanao. I for one don’t care if the Muslims men or women have what is called burqa or veil for as long he/she is peaceful in our midst.

  7. Nasser Datu Imam says:

    Declaring martial Law against the MILF or martial law against the Bangsamoro People is one of the best solution to the Moro problems. Martial law to a civil war is needed, millions of people will die in weeks is a morethan enough to conduct referendum in the Moro areas. Mass grave is inevitable for a Separate Bangsamoro State. Moros fire power in ’70s is lessthan 300 pcs. but we never submitted, of a now generation our fire power is nealy a hundred thousands with a sophisticated rockets.

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