Mindanao legislator joins call to extend IMT’s tour of duty

Rep. Emylou "Lala" Talino-Mendoza (1st Dist., Cotabato province), said that "records of the peace negotiating panel shows how the IMT's presence in Mindanao significantly reduced the number of skirmishes" between the government and the MILF.

Records of the Joint Coordinating Committee on the Cessation of Hostilities (Joint CCCH)  and found that the number of skirmishes between the government and MILF forces has steadily gone down from 698 in 2002 to 569 in 2003, a year of war; to 16 in 2004, the year  the IMT came to Mindanao; 13 in 2005, 10 in 2006; to only 8 in 2007.

Mendoza, whose district includes the towns of Midsayap, Pikit, Kabacan and Carmen, among others that suffered the brunt of the war in 2003, said: "Our people deserve the relative peace brought about by the coming of the IMT. The thought alone of the sufferings of the evacuees at evacuation centers during the war is enough to horrify us all."

The legislator, who heads the powerful Committee on Appointments at the Lower House, said she was assured by Chief of Staff Gen. Hermogenes Esperon who visited Carmen, the hometown of the congresswoman, that the Malaysians would "not be abandoning the peace process."

While she was "a bit relieved" with Esperon's assurance as she "thanked the Malaysian government for the decision not to abandon the peace process," she stressed that the IMT, with the Malaysians as their leading contingents, had been doing a great job. “We should also appeal to them to continue the well-done job of monitoring the ceasefire agreement."

Over the weekend, Esperon said in an interview that the government was "working on a new arrangement on the IMT. They have to depart as their tour of duty ends on August 31. We have to make a new request."

"Meantime that we have no new agreement, the gradual pull-out of the IMT contingents has to continue," the chief of staff said.

Talino-Mendoza, who anticipated that the pull-out of the Malaysian troops may also cause contingents from Brunei and Japan to send their troops back home, expressed fears of a possibility of an eruption of another war around the area.

"God forbid but if this happens again, the civilians, who have not yet fully recovered from the effects of the war in 2003, would be the first and biggest casualty. Children, the aged and women will be trooping to congested evacuation centers. As much as possible, we should not allow this to happen," she said while also calling on fellow legislators to "rally behind the extension of the tour of duty of the IMT."

Malaysia's Defense Force Chief General Tan Sri Abdul Aziz on Saturday said "we will continue to support the ceasefire in whatever way."

Aziz explained that they "are not abandoning the peace process. We will continue to host the talks but we also need everyone's cooperation to set things going. Let us pray hard for a positive outcome of the peace process."

Atty. Mary Ann Arnado, secretary-general of the Mindanao Peoples Caucus, agreed with Talino-Mendoza on the possibility of "another war that may go out of control if the IMT pulls out."

"Just like a basketball game, where there is no referee, the players would just feel free in violating the rules," Arnado said.

This developed as MILF chief negotiator Mohagher Iqbal, in a telephone interview, believed that Malaysia decided to pull out its contingents because the government failed to fulfill its obligation in the peace process.

Iqbal explained that the government's supposed obligation after their February 19 meeting where the government submitted its draft Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) on Ancestral Domain (AD) was to call a meeting in the last week of March as they had earlier agreed upon.

"If either of the two parties does not fulfill its obligation, then the IMT has reason to pull out," said the MILF chief negotiator.

Iqbal said that the MILF had "very minor comments" on the government's draft MOA on AD but instead of "simply incorporating the minor comments, the government created a legal team to review everything we have already agreed upon."

The government has two lawyers in its negotiating panel.

He said the Malaysian government has pulled out from the IMT because the government has "backtracked" in the negotiations.

"The peace talk has not yet stopped and we are willing to go back to the negotiation table anytime government decides to honor our previous agreements," Iqbal said. (Romy Elusfa / special to MindaNews)

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