ARMM Gov: US troops welcome “but we want respect”

“The province of Lanao del Norte, Lanao del Sur, Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi are among the areas which the government of United States and Philippines agreed to hold Balikatan 2008 simultaneously on February 18,”  a press statement from the ARMM said.

A week ago, the ARMM’s Regional Legislative Assembly (RLA) issued a resolution stating opposition to Balikatan in Lanao del Sur and Marawi City.

The press statement quoted RLA speaker Paislain P. Tago, Al Haj, as saying, “there was no consultation made in the regional, provincial, municipal and city leaders before the final conduct of Balikatan.”

Resolution No. 353 adopted on February 5, also stressed that the people of Lanao del Sur and Marawi city “strictly adhere to their Islamic faith, culture and tradition thus they defy the conduct of the military exercise.”

The press statement said the governor is “hopeful that the national government would review the necessary protocol before the conduct of the Balikatan exercises for the welfare of the Bangsamoro people in the autonomous region.”

The ARMM comprises Basilan, Sulu, Tawi-Tawi, Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao, Shariff Kabunsuan and the Islamic City of Marawi.

Last week, the US Embassy in Manila issued a press statement saying there will be “no military exercises or war games conducted in Mindanao and Sulu" during the conduct of the RP-US Balikatan 2008 from February 18 to March 3 but "Mindanao and Sulu" will receive "humanitarian assistance" within that period.

The press release did not specify in which areas in Mindanao they were going to conduct the "humanitarian assistance," citing only "Central and Western Mindanao" and "the Sulu Archipelago" where "approximately 23 humanitarian assistance projects" will be conducted within the period.

Mindanao has 27 provinces and 33 cities.
The press release said "approximately 600 U.S. troops will work with civilian authorities and the AFP (Armed Forces in the Philippines) in these regions on humanitarian projects" and that the joint teams will offer "free medical, dental, and veterinary care."

"They will also construct and repair schools and other community infrastructures in areas of Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago that are in great need of assistance. The majority of U.S. personnel are construction engineers and medical specialists.  They will be working side-by-side with their AFP counterparts who will be in charge of all projects," the US Embassy said.

 "These humanitarian assistance and training activities enable our soldiers to get to know each other, train together, and provide assistance in communities where the need is greatest," the press release quoted U.S. Ambassador Kristie A. Kenney as saying. "True to the meaning of the word Balikatan, Americans and Filipinos are shouldering the load together to help the greatest possible number of people in need," it said.

In Cotabato City, Suara Bangsamoro (Voice of the Bangsamoro) party-list lauded the RLA-ARMM on the resolution citing the opposition of Lanao del Sur and Marawi.

“We greatly appreciate the effort of the legislative assembly of ARMM to stand in this dubious endeavor of US to Mindanao. The another round of Balikatan exercises is a big insult to the Bangsamoro people who have experienced rights violations committed by the US troops in their past exercises especially in the provinces of Sulu and Basilan,” ai Ali Indayla, national secretary-general of Suara Bangsamoro, said.

In a press statement, Indayla cited the case of an MNLF integree, Army Sgt. Ibnul Wahid of Maimbung, Sulu who was killed by the military on February 4 in the guise of pursuing the Abu Sayyaf. “Ibnul’s wife, Sandrawina Wahid, said that she saw four US soldiers during the incident prior the military blindfolded her,” Indayla said.
“US troops are not here just for military deployment and permanent basing, but are preparing for another war – war to amass all resources in our rich land. That is their long-standing hidden agenda,” Indayla revealed.

Indayla said they are asking the RLA-ARMM “to conduct a separate and thorough investigation on human rights violations committed by US troops in the course of their military exercises. The result would be passed to the Congress to further study the ill-effects of Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) to the Bangsamoro and the Filipino people.” (MindaNews)