This explains the frantic appeals to President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to ask Malaysia not to withdraw its troops manning the International Monitoring Team. They fear that without the IMT, hostilities between the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front will break out. The memories of evacuation days horrify.
The fear is very understandable. But the feared hostilities following the IMT withdrawal are unconscionable. Will President Arroyo and the military, Chairman Murad Ebrahim and the MILF sacrifice amity to enmity? Besides, could the fear be a case of fearing fear?
I passed by the area last week – three to four times counting back to 2007. There have been some appreciable changes which could be possible only in peace.
First: Gone were the checkpoints. Back in the conflict days, army detachments were common sights not so many kilometres apart. In approaching them, vehicles had to slow down or stop for inspection. Two or three times, somewhere along the stretch, public utility jeeps had to stop to pay toll fees to the MILF. Now, passage is uninterrupted.
Gone were the evacuees’ houses along the highway. In their places now stand new houses, some, even if small, built with hollow blocks and GI roofs. In fact, more new communities have gone up. In early evenings when we passed by – a no, no before – people were sauntering about.
Second: Land transportation between Cotabato City and General Santos City via Dalican has improved. A bus line with air-conditioned units has been operating for two or three years. The national road is better tended.
Third: Economic development is evident. While Kabulnan irrigation system is underutilized, it has opened irrigated farms. For instance, the flat lands between Kauran Bridge and Ampatuan Poblacion – quite a long stretch — are now productive rice and corn fields. There are big mango plantations nearing fruiting stage.
The wide gap between social classes is very evident. Nonetheless, the common residents seem to be occupied with work. The public markets of Shariff Aquak and Datu Odin Sinsuat are full. Small stores abound on the sides of the road.
Newly created municipalities have hardly taken off; however, there’s noticeable development in some old communities like Salbu Crossing and Tambunan, now the seat of the government of the newly-created municipality of Guindulungan.
Among the old municipalities, Shariff Aguak has more new public buildings built or being built. [Since 1973, it has been the capital of Maguindanao but the provincial capitol was relocated there only after the separation of Shariff Kabunsuan on October 31, 2006.] Another is Talayan. Its town hall has vastly expanded and construction is going on. So has its public market with a big mosque rising beside.
Certainly, other Muslims in conflict-affected areas have enjoyed the blessings of similar peace and development since 2004 when the ceasefire came under the oversight of the IMT. Have the military and the MILF no part in the much-changed life of the Muslims? Haven’t they learned to banish war and keep the peace?
The IMT has been credited with an impressive record. A report of MindaNews (April 28): Per records of the Joint Coordinating Committee on the Cessation of Hostilities (CCCH), before the coming of IMT, there were 698 military-MILF skirmishes in 2002 and 569 in 2003. These very dramatically went down after: 16 in 2004; 13 in 2005; 10 in 2006 and eight in 2007.*
*[The Philippine Embassy in Washington, D.C. published a report at variance with the CCCH figures reported by MindaNews: (Buliok incidents) 01 January – 18 July 2003 – 528; (reactivation of Joint CCCH) 19 July – December 2003 – 31; 01 January -30 December 2004 – 71. The report credits to the Joint CCCH the dramatic decline of skirmishes from 19 July 2003 to 30 December 2004 which amounted to 5 to 6 a month or 1 to 2 a week. While at variance, the Embassy and the CCCH-MindaNews reports have this significance in common: The key to peace is the strict and sincere observance of the ceasefire agreement.]
The Ramos government signed a ceasefire agreement with the MILF on July 18, 1997. This was re-negotiated and signed in March 2001 on the resumption of the peace talk with the Arroyo government — the implementing guidelines signed on August 7, 2001. Despite the ceasefire agreement in place, the armed encounters did not abate until 2004 (19 July 2003 by the Embassy report) – several of them large scale, notably the all-out war in 2000 and the Pikit war in 2003.
These evidently led to the belief, as MindaNews reported: “The Malaysia-led IMT has been credited for helping stabilize situation on the ground since 2004.” This is the common belief. However, the truth needs a closer evaluation.
Can the dramatic reduction of skirmishes in 2004 be largely attributed to the IMT? Significant to note, the IMT set in place in Mindanao October 2004 – the 51 Malaysian members arriving in Manila October 9, the 10 Bruneians October 20. How many of the 16 skirmishes happened before and after IMT could function the MindaNews report did not state.
The IMT (originally OIC Monitoring Team) is one of the three mechanisms provided in the Implementing Guidelines of 2001 for the implementation of the Ceasefire Agreement – the other two: the Joint CCCH and the Local Monitoring Teams. Obviously, the IMT strengthened the ceasefire implementation. But, what really is its role in the peace process?
The question is vital to quiet the fears arising from the withdrawal of the IMT. The reduction of the skirmishes from 569 in 2003 to 16 in 2004 (71 by the Embassy report) can hardly be credited totally to the IMT. The Joint CCCH and the LMTs did their jobs well before the coming of the IMT with the evident cooperation of both the AFP and the MILF.
The GRP and MILF Panels, through various agreements since 2001, have set up mechanisms for the implementation of the ceasefire and other components of the peace process. Obviously, the works of the different components are well coordinated by the Joint CCCH.
From the report of the 40th regular meeting of the Joint CCCH on August 29, 2007, we can appreciate the IMT:
∑ The GRP and MILF chairmen cited “the significant accomplishments and invaluable contributions of the IMT to the … peace process, especially on the ceasefire, rehabilitation and development aspects of the 2001 Tripoli Agreement ….”
∑ The “Commanding General of the 6th Infantry Division … gave recognition to the IMT’s effectiveness as a third party monitor to the GRP-MILF ceasefire agreement”. Not only that – “the presence of the IMT contributed significantly to the delivery of basic social services to the local populace in the conflict-affected areas.”
In response, the IMT Head of Mission “lauded the strong commitment and dedication of the GRP-MILF CCCH and all the stakeholders of the peace process. He appealed to all concerned to maintain the momentum and good relationships among all those involved in the peace negotiations, and to further enhance the ceasefire structures and mechanisms in order that long and lasting peace and prosperity will finally prevail in Mindanao.”
As we are made to see, the task of the IMT is to help not just in the monitoring of the ceasefire and conciliating the violations but also in the delivery of social services and implementation of some rehabilitation and development projects.
However, in lauding the Joint CCCH and “all stakeholders of the peace process”, which must include the AFP and MILF armed forces, for their “strong commitment and dedication” to the peace process, the IMT Head of Mission acknowledged that as a player the IMT has limited role. This and his appeal should assuage the fear that upon the departure of the IMT the peace and prosperity that have come in the last four years will also depart.
However, the fear that the heavens would crumble when the IMT departs is disappointing. It suggests that we trust foreigners more than ourselves. True, the IMT is one of the legs of the three-legged implementing structure of the ceasefire agreement. But before its coming, the CCCH and LMT with some peace groups cooperating had stabilized peace.
Alarming are some news reports: The AFP is stockpiling in anticipation of “the crisis situation that may develop in Mindanao” (Reuters, April 28). The MILF seized a village in Kalamansig, Sultan Kudarat (INQUIRER.net, May 2). The pullout “raised fears that restive MILF hardliners will try to steer the movement back to the warpath … (Asia News Network, April 28, posted in INQUIRER.net)”. Media are hungry for bloody headlines.
If as reported by the Philippine Embassy in Washington, D.C., the skirmishes were reduced to one to two a week from the reactivation of the Joint CCCH on July 19, 2003 until December 30, 2004, the AFP and MILF must have accepted the policy of amity, rejecting enmity. And the more they must have been convinced of the sanity of the policy on witnessing the people enjoying the blessings of peace.
There are some hawks in the AFP and the Cabinet. There are some hardliners in the MILF. The latter should have seen how good peace is for Muslim Mindanao. The hawks should fly over Muslim Mindanao to see what peace has brought to the Muslims.
The policy of amity, not enmity, should prevail. This does not depend on the IMT. Shame on President Arroyo and her Cabinet and on MILF Chairman Murad Ebrahim and the Central Committee if they cannot let this policy rein in the hawks and hardliners in their armed forces! (“Comment" is Mr. Patricio P. Diaz' column for MindaViews, the opinion section of MindaNews. Mr. Diaz is the recipient of a “Lifetime Achievement Award” from the Titus Brandsma for his "commitment to education and public information to Mindanawons as Journalist, Educator and Peace Advocate." You may e-mail your comments to [email protected]).