Bantay Ceasefire, Manila gathering ask Malaysia to stay

“We speak as the sons, the daughters, the parents, the family and friends of the victims of armed conflict in Mindanao.  We speak on behalf of those who have the most at stake at its peaceful resolution.  We speak as the ones to pick up the pieces should the peace process completely collapse,” Bantay Ceasefire said in a press statement.

Other groups in Mindanao, Visayas and Luzon who gathered in Manila over the weekend also appealed to Malaysia to reconsider its decision and to instead let “our historic bonds of Malays solidarity and friendship strengthen our resolve to forge a community of peace in the ASEAN.”

“The pullout of the International Monitoring Team (IMT) led by the Government of Malaysia will clearly have dire consequences on the lives of people in the conflict-affected areas.  As an independent grassroots ceasefire monitoring mechanism, Bantay Ceasefire saw how the presence of the IMT had dramatically improved the lives of civilians,” Bantay Ceasefire said.

“The track record of the IMT in the last four years will show that it is, indeed indispensable to the mechanism for cessation of hostilities and to the peace process.  Before the IMT arrived, there were two all out wars in years 2000 and 2003 which displaced hundreds of thousands of civilians.  Before that, there were major fighting in Camps Omar and Raja Muda, just to name two.  After the IMT arrived, there were no major fighting let alone all-out war.  Last year, a full-blown war threatened to explode but was averted precisely of the IMT,” the group said.

MindaNews checked the records of the Joint Coordinating Committee on the Cessation of Hostilities (Joint CCCH  and found that the number of skirmishes has steadily gone down from 569 in 2003, a year of war, to 16 in 2004, the year  the IMT came to Mindanao, to only 8 in 2007.

The CCCH recorded 698 armed skirmishes in 2002, 569 in 2003, 16 in 2004, 13 in 2005, 10 in 2006 and only eight in 2007.

On Thursday, the Malaysian national news agency, Bernama, reported that Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak announced Malaysia would withdraw “in phases” its peacekeeping troops in Mindanao starting May.

“A decision has been made on our presence there (Mindanao)… we cannot be there forever," Najib told reporters at the 11th Defense Services Asia Exhibition and Conference, bernama.com reported.

Najib said 21 peacekeepers would return to Malaysia initially. That number represents more than half of Malaysia’s 41-man contingent.
 
The presence of the IMT in conflict-affected areas not only allowed the people to enjoy relative peace but also provided an environment conducive to peace negotiations and allowed aid agencies to operate relatively free and unhampered in the conflict affected areas, the statement read.
 
The group said that while the decision to withdraw the IMT is “regrettable, (it) is understandable.”

Both the international community as well as the people of Mindanao “do not deserve an open-ended peace process.  Prior commitments on the negotiating table must be respected.  It shows utter disrespect for the peace process and to those who have been helping move it forward to revisit and backtrack from prior commitments,” the group said.

Bantay Ceasefire also said it is aware “that there are powerful groups within and without the government, with vested political and economic interests in Mindanao, who feel that their interests are threatened by the peace process.  We are aware that the troubles the peace process have undergone these past years are brought about by their growing influence in the negotiations.  We urge them to look beyond their self-interests for the good of the people of Mindanao and the Philippines.”
 
“It has taken so much hard work on the part of civil society and the international community to build a constituency for peace in Mindanao, to make people believe that a just peace is possible, and to generate confidence in the peace process.  Should the talks completely collapse, it will be well nigh impossible to restore that confidence,” it warned.

It also called on the Philippine government and the MILF to resume the formal peace talks and sign the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain based on the agreed consensus points and urged both panels to request the Malaysian government to extend the IMT's tour of duty and reconsider its decision on the pull out of Malaysian troops.

The group urged Congress to postone the August 11 ARMM elections “to allow for sufficient time for the GRP-MILF peace talks to conclude the negotiations and complete the ongoing Tripartite Review of the 1996 Peace Agreement.”

“We believe that these processes should not be overtaken by the ARMM election,” Bantay Ceasefire’s statement read.

The group also called on  President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo to “push for the signing of  a Peace Agreement with the MILF as a symbol of her long lasting legacy for the people of Mindanao.”

In another statement. members of civil society, government, academe and other stakeholders in peace from Mindanao, Luzon and Visayas and National Capital Region (NCR) and individuals working for global peace affiliates, said  it is “imperative” that Malaysian monitors stay in Mindanao to keep the peace because “they ensure that any gains in the peace process can be complied with and even sustained with support from the donor community.”

Malaysia’s announcement it would withdraw its troops although by phases, has “grave repercussions and dangerous implications to the peace process and to the lives of thousands of residents in communities who are still reeling from rehabilitation efforts,” the statement signed by, among others, former Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process Teresita Quinto-Deles, Rep. Risa Hontiveros-Baraqueland Etta Rosales of Akbayan, Initiatives for International Dialogue executive director Gus Miclat, Consortium of Bangsamoro Civil Society executive director Guiamel Alim and Professor Miriam Coronel-Ferrer.

Malaysia leads the 57-member IMT, 41 of whom are Malaysians, 10 from Brunei, five from Libya and one from Japan, who is not from the military but a development expert.

The group acknowledged how the IMT has “instituted confidence-building measures such as ceasefire mechanisms and joint military actions between the GRP and MILF, opened lines of communication between the GRP and MILF and helped bridged differences by backroom channeling.”

The group also noted that the IMT “has acknowledged and involved local communities in peacekeeping thus empowering these local stakeholders to sustain a peace environment.  The harmonious working relations among the IMT, Military and local Bantay Ceasefire groups has tremendous impact in stabilizing security in the Southern region.”

The group also acknowledged the leadership of Malaysia in promoting peace, democratization and stability in the region, as it citied how as lead convenor of the ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Caucus for Good Governance, “Malaysia plays a key role in steering the region towards fulfilling human development goals.”

The group’s statement quoted Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi as saying that as overarching principles for the ASEAN Community, “there should be a universal acceptance that community interests would prevail over national interests on issues affecting the community and that ASEAN has to do better in giving national effect to wider international treaties and conventions, including ASEAN treaties and agreements by putting in place capacities for enforcing community decisions.” (MindaNews)

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