Malaysia is “not abandoning the peace process” but “pray, pray hard”

“Malaysia is not abandoning the peace process… We started it, we’d like to see it end positively,” he said as he urged the “cooperation of everybody, the Philippine government, the MILF (Moro Islamic Liberation Front),” to work on the peace process because “we cannot be here forever.”

The general said he was able to convey to Philippine Defense Secretary Gilbert Teodoro what Malaysia’s Deputy Prime Minister and concurrent Defense Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak described on April 24 as “phased withdrawal” of the Malaysian contingent in the International Monitoring Team (IMT) it is heading.

Aziz, however, was not as specific as Najib’s first phase withdrawal of 21 troops starting May. He said he would like to “check which areas would be affected” and from which areas IMT forces “may have to be relieved” before giving out the number of troops returning home.

The Malaysian national news agency, Bernama, reported on April 24 that Najib told reporters at the 11th Defence Services Asia Exhibition and Conference that Malaysia will start to withdraw in phases its peacekeeping troops from Mindanao by May, starting with 21 troops.

Malaysia has 41 troops in the 57-person IMT, 10 of them from Brunei, five from Libya and the lone non-military member, a development expert from Japan. The IMT’s tour of duty expires on August 31 this year.

“The Defence Forces chief will leave for the Philippines next month to convey to the Philippine government about the withdrawal. A decision has been made on our presence there… we cannot be there forever,” bernama.com quoted Najib as saying on April 24.

Aziz was apparently groping for the most diplomatic language he could use to describe “withdrawal.”

Hours earlier, in the Philippines’ Presidential Palace in Metro Manila, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo presented him the distinguished “Philippine Legion of Honor” award “with the rank of Grand Officer” (Marangal na Pinuno) while Esperon looked on.

Ms Arroyo “caused to be inscribed in the roster of the Philippine Legion of Honor”  Aziz’ name for having “distinguished himself in his chosen career,” and for having “helped strengthen further the close relations existing between the Philippines and Malaysia, particularly in the promotion of peace, security, and development in Mindanao.”

“We don’t simply withdraw. We’re just thinning out,” Aziz  told MindaNews.

While he said nothing about the “thinning out” during his seven-minute post-dinner speech,  Aziz thanked “the people of Mindanao for giving us their cooperation to the IMT for the past four years in making sure that the peace process, or at least the creation of a peaceful situation on the ground was carried out very successfully.”

He said he wishes “that the peace process will continue” and hopes that “whatever has been done will be cherished for as long as you can remember.”

“We are ready to assist you in making sure the peace process will continue to be conducted,” he said.

Esperon, who spoke before Abdul Aziz, said the tour of duty of the IMT “ends every year, every end of August so it is now the time for the gradual pull-out of some of the forces.”

Aziz did not answer a query before dinner, on the reported closure effective May 10 of  the IMT team site offices in the cities of Iligan, General Santos, Davao and Zamboanga, a report an IMT official in one of the team sites confirmed but which a government source said should be viewed as “downsizing” or “the Malaysians are consolidating their forces back to Cotabato.”

“Malaysia is not abandoning the peace process,” he told three representatives of the Bantay Ceasefire, a grassroots ceasefire monitoring team, who managed to hand over their statement of appeal to him for Malaysia to stay.

He said the tour of duty of the IMT expires on August 31 this year and that in the absence of a new mandate, the troops will have to return home.

But Malaysia’s Foreign Minister Rais Yatim was more direct in his statement on April 21. He said Malaysia “will not be sending any more monitoring teams to Mindanao after the mandate of its current team ends in September.”

Bernama quoted Rais as saying, “we have to get cooperation from both sides. But if one party is not making the effort, we will have to end the mission.”

As was usual practice in the IMT until 2006,  May and June were preparatory months for the phasing out and phasing in of the contingents but troops bound for home would leave by phases in July so that by August, only the IMT Head of Mission would be around to introduce the new Head of Mission.

Last year was the first time Malaysia warned it would withdraw its forces if nothing significant happened in the peace talks.

The talks went on an impasse in early September 2006 but the government and MILF peace panels met in August 2007 to request for an extension of the IMT’s tour of duty by another year, a request Malaysia granted.

The impasse ended in October 2007 and both parties were optimistic they would sign an agreement on ancestral domain before the year ended but by December, the talks went into yet another impasse with the MILF boycotting a scheduled negotiation after reading a government-drafted agreement on ancestral domain that MILF peace panel chair Mohagher Iqbal described as having “veered away from the consensus points both parties had earlier agreed upon.”

Unknown to the public, the parties met in Kuala Lumpur in late January this year and in the third week of February, the Malaysian facilitator of the talks Othman Abdul Razak, came to the Philippines to shuttle between the government and MILF peace panels to supposedly iron out whatever major or minor kinks there were, Iqbal said.

“The ball is in the government’s hands,” he said on April 16, after the MILF’s Central Committee met with 10 European Union ambassadors in their base in Camp Darapanan, Sultan Kudarat, Sharifff Kabunsuan.

Five days later, on April 21, Bernama reported Rais’ warning that “Malaysia will not be sending any more monitoring teams to Mindanao after the mandate of its current team ends in September.”

The IMT has been in Mindanao since 2004 and has significantly helped reduce the skirmishes between the warring forces.

MindaNews checked the records of the Joint Coordinating Committee on the Cessation of Hostilities (Joint CCCH)  and found that the number of skirmishes between the governent and MILF forces has steadily gone down from 698 in 2002 to 569 in 2002, a year of war; to 16 in 2004, the year  the IMT came to Mindanao; to only 8 in 2007.

Within the period, the economy of Mindanao’s six regions grew steadily.  (Carolyn O. Arguillas/Mindanews)

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