MILF urges vigilance on Balikatan resumption

In a peace forum held in Cotabato City over the weekend, Iqbal said the MILF will coordinate with non-government organizations and non-partisan groups “to do something in response to these exercises, such as human rights violations. NGOs play a vital role in these issues confronting the areas.”

He said the government was yet to respond to the letter from the MILF ceasefire committee regarding the resumption of Balikatan in February.

American troops will start arriving in Cagayan de Oro City, Lanao del Sur and Lanao del Norte on February 18 and will be deployed in Sulu, Western and North Eastern Mindanao, military officials said.

The US warned it will cancel this year’s Balikatan after a Makati City court denied the return of US Marine Lance Corporal Daniel Smith to American custody.

Lance was sentenced to 40 years in jail for raping a Filipina known only as ‘Nicole’, in Subic in November 2005. Three other US soldiers were acquitted of the same charge.

The court decision caused severe strains in diplomatic relations between the Philippines and the US.

Malacañang, apparently bowing to American pressure, asserted that the US has the right of custody over Smith by virtue of the 1998 Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA).

The US announced the resumption of Balikatan after Smith was transferred from the Makati City Jail to the US Embassy without a court order.

A number of groups have attacked the VFA in “giving US authorities legal jurisdiction over American soldiers who commit crimes in the Philippines” and called it a “US strategy in setting up a permanent base in Mindanao.”

Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (BAYAN) has called for a full disclosure of the status of the Mutual Logistics Support Agreement (MLSA) that allows US forces to use Philippine facilities as bases and forward stations.

Renato Reyes Jr., Bayan secretary general, said they have urged Congress to shed light on how the VFA and the MLSA “actually operate in Mindanao.”

Under the VFA, American troops are allowed to stay in the Philippines for an unspecified length of time. They are also allowed to use Philippine facilities for storage of supplies and prepositioning of equipment under the MLSA, Reyes said.

“We believe that the presence of armed US special forces in Mindanao, under whatever guise, poses a threat to local security. We also believe that their continuing engagement in Mindanao undermines national sovereignty,” he added.

Some 10,000 demonstrators in an interfaith peace caravan-rally in Iligan last week assailed the return of the Balikatan as “anti-Mindanawon” and expressed fear that it may “severely add damage to injury” to the talks between the government and the MILF.

“This interfaith peace caravan-rally intends to prevent possible conflict and to show to the parties that the Bangsamoro is in solidarity with the Christians and the Lumads” said Lacs Dalidig of the Islamic Movement for Electoral Reform and Good Governance (IMERGG) and Muslim Multi-sectoral Movement for Peace and Development (MMMPD).

“If these acts are not enough to catch the attention of the government, the Interfaith CSOs (civil society organizations) will organize a walk for peace from Marawi City to Malacanang Palace to show to the government that we are indeed very serious in our fervor to attain just and lasting peace in Mindanao,” Dalidig added.

“We are one with the Bangsamoro in the call for lasting peace. After all only those who declared war win; we are all victims,” said Fr. Chito Sugano of the Marawi Catholic church.

During the military offensives in Sulu and Basilan last year, fully-armed American soldiers were spotted leading an armed Philippine military convoy. This was seen as a violation of the VFA which does not allow US troops to engage in actual combat in the Philippines, critics said. (Norodin M. Makalay/MindaNews)

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