‘War is not an option’

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BALINDONG, Lanao del Sur  – Entering the camp of Moro Islamic Liberation Front leader Abdulrahman Macapaar, more popularly known as Commander Bravo, in the mountains on top of this town, one could easily notice the patch of newly planted spring onions on a soccer-sized field.

“We flattened this ground to accommodate the landing of the helicopter of President Duterte. We have expected him to come,” Bravo told reporters when he welcomed them to his camp, saying Duterte promised to visit his camp shortly after he won in the May 2016 elections. “Now that he is no longer coming, we just planted spring onions so our efforts will not go to waste,” he said.

Bravo said he had expected President Duterte to visit him and had prepared not only this small airfield but another one of his camp in Munai, Lanao del Norte.

The planned meeting with Duterte did not materialize, however. Duterte accused Bravo of supporting the Maute terrorist group based in nearby Butig town.

Duterte also accused Bravo of arresting suspected drug lords and pushers, and prosecuting them in Sharia courts.

Bravo said drug syndicates in Lanao del Sur is his No. 1 concern these days and did not deny he had arrested several persons in the past.

He, however, denied he has joined the Maute terror group, saying he and the MILF have made several attempts in the past to convince the terrorists to stop their attacks and join them. “They told me me to join them instead. But why should I join them when I was the one who trained most of them?” Bravo claimed.

He believes the immediate passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law would put an end to the threat of terrorism and instead unify all the Moros in Mindanao.

“Maski ano pa ang pangalan. Kahit wala pa ang BBL. Ang importante ang freedom of religion sa amin,” Bravo said. (Whatever it will be called. Even if without the BBL. What is important to us is freedom of religion.)

He said it is important for the Moros to freely practice the Sharia Islamic laws.

“Yan lang po ang gusto namin. Lahat ng  mga Muslim ay magpakamatay dahil lang dun. Yan lang ang layunin namin na ang Sharia Islamiya ma implement sa amin,” he said. (That’s all that we want. All Muslims would be willing to die for that. Our only hope is for Sharia Islamia to be implemented in our area.)

Bravo said he hoped his unwavering support for a new peace agreement between the government and the MILF would reach the ears of President Duterte. He said he and other MILF commanders will stand by the decision of their leadership and respect the ongoing peace process.

Other Maranao leaders are also optimistic that a final peace agreement can be achieved during the administration of President Duterte.

Samira Gutoc-Tomawis, a member of the Bangsamoro Transition Council, noted that the BBL is an outcome of the peace talks between the MILF and the government.

Tomawis said the remaining problem now is how to merge the previous draft BBL and the next draft yet to be crafted based on the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB) signed by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the Philippine government.

She expressed appreciation on the Duterte administration’s move to also take into consideration the Final Peace Agreement with the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) in 1996.

Tomawis said the next important thing to do in the peace talks is to widen participation to include the Lumads in the affected areas.

“Why is it important for the Moros to recognize the IPs [indigenous peoples]? If we Moros are demanding for our rights, we cannot simply not recognize the rights of the IPs who live in our proposed Bangsamoro area,” Tomawis said.

She said the lumads living within the proposed Bangsamoro areas are deeply concerned of their future.

She said Lumad leaders she has spoken to have complained that MILF leaders do not listen to their concerns during forums and discussions they have attended with the rebels.

“I feel their pain because they are not being heard in various consultations,” Tomawis said.

Abdul Hamidullah Atar, sultan of Marawi City, said any future development on the peace agreement would depend on the sincerity of the Duterte administration.

Atar said the non-passage of the BBL during the Aquino administration has sharply divided the people of Lanao del Sur.

He said one group is the sympathizers of the MNLF who are happy that the bill was not passed.

“Many MNLF supporters believe that many provisos of the 1996 peace agreement have yet to be implemented and they are happy because these can be realized in a new deal,” Atar said.

He said the second group who are happy with the non-passage are the traditional politicians who think a new form of political system will limit their political and financial power.

“Marami sa kanila [politicians] nag depend sa Internal Revenue Allotment to support them and their families,” he said. (Many of the politicians depend on the Internal Revenue Allotment to support them and their families.)

But Atar said majority of the residents in Lanao del Sur were frustrated that the BBL was not passed during the Aquino administration.

“Many of them were frustrated because too much effort were made – forums, marches, etc. – but still it was not passed,” he said.

Atar said a segment of the Lanao del Sur population felt that negotiations are a waste of time and effort.

Tirmizy Esmail Abdullah, who teaches history at the Mindanao State University main campus in Marawi, said he is worried if nothing comes out of the peace talks and the people lose hope. “That’s what scares me, because once people lose hope in peace, then what comes out are the different groups which are more radical and more extreme,” he added.

Agakhan Sharief, known in Lanao del Sur as Bin Laden because of his resemblance to the late al-Qaeda leader, pointed out that during the failure in the negotiations during the time of former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, when the Memorandum of Agreement on the Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD) was trashed, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters was born.

Then again when BBL was not passed during the administration of former President Benigno Aquino III, the Maute Group was formed, Sharief noted.

“What scares me is when people get frustrated because the government can’t deliver on its promises, maybe we’ll have our own suicide bombers, like what’s happening in other countries,” he warned.

But whatever happens, “war is not an option,” according to Tirmizy Esmail Abdullah, who teaches history at the Mindanao State University main campus in Marawi.

“We cannot go for war, it’s very expensive. People are tired that for many years, for many decades, conflicts and wars have come and gone,” he said.

“When we look at where the Muslims live, the Bangsamoro, they really lag behind. And one of the major factors is the conflict,” he maintained.

He is hoping that the final law that will come out of the peace process between the government and the MILF will be based on the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro and not a diluted BBL. (Froilan Gallardo / MindaNews)

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