COMMENTARY: The MILF: Full circle again By Edwin G. Espejo

GENERAL SANTOS CITY (MindaNews/11 February) — The admission of Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) chairman Murad Al Haj Ibrahim that one of its more senior and controversial commanders has resigned following organizational and, as it now appears, ideological disagreements placed the largest Moro rebel group in a position that it forced itself against the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) close to
three decades ago.

The MILF, led by the late Salamat Hashim and Murad, was formed as a breakaway group from Nur Misuari’s MNLF following the signing of the
1976 Tripoli Agreement.  It emerged as a distinct armed group several years later and by the 1980s was already known to be a separate Moro
revolutionary organization which upheld its secessionist vision and the creation of a separate Moro homeland in the southern part of the
Philippines.

Following what it said the complete ‘integration’ of Misuari’s MNLF when he signed the 1996 Jakarta Peace Accord, the MILF became the
haven of Moro idealists who were attracted by the vision for a separate Moro homeland.

International pressure, however, especially coming from the Organization of Islamic Countries as well as mounting calls for peace in Mindanao, forced the MILF to enter into its own peace process with the Philippine government in 1992.

But the late MILF chair refused to enter into formal peace negotiations with the then Ramos government until the GRP-MNLF peace
talks were concluded.
Several months after the signing of the 1996 GRP-MNLF peace accord, the MILF agreed to hold informal peace talks with the Ramos government
and held its first low-level formal meeting the following year.
Before negotiating panels from both sides could meet, however, armed hostilities erupted following what the MILF claimed was an “intrusion
of Philippine military forces” into its stronghold at Camp Abu Bakr in Buldon, Maguindano in January 1997.

Following the clashes, the Philippine government and the MILF signed an interim ceasefire.

Hostilities, however, again flared up in June 1997 which eventually led to the signing of a formal “cessation of hostilities” between the
Philippine government and the MILF.
The same ceasefire agreement is still in effect today.
Negotiations between the two panels did not formally begin until October 1999, twenty months after and after several meetings of
technical working groups between the two protagonists of the Mindanao conflict.

By then the Joseph Estrada was already the president of the Philippines.
The following year, however, the Armed Forces of the Philippines simultaneously launched all out assaults on major rebel strongholds in
Mindanao resulting in the death of hundreds of civilians and combatants and the displacements of tens of thousands of residents from their homes.

Three months later, in June 1999, the MILF withdrew from the peace talks.
In 2001, it was revived by former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo who was installed as president following the ouster of Estrada during
the EDSA 2 people power uprising in January of that year.
Both the government and the MILF agreed on three agenda for the peace talks namely: security aspects (ceasefire); rehabilitation and
development of conflict affected areas; and ancestral domain.
The two panels met numerous times and were, at one time or another,mediated and facilitated by Libya, Malaysia and Indonesia.

By then, the MILF already dropped its secessionist bid and opted for wider self-determination to resolve the centuries-old Mindanao
conflict.

But beginning 2004, a year after the death of Salamat, negotiations again broke down following intermittent clashes.

Then in 2008, the government and the MILF initialed the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain, the last and thorniest issue of the
peace talks.
It was already slated for signature by both parties when its content was leaked.

Prominent government officials and lawmakers questioned the document and the Supreme Court later ruled that the MOA-AD was unconstitutional.

The Supreme Court ruling led several MILF senior commanders to launch massive attacks in several provinces in Mindanao, bringing out charges of ceasefire violations from both sides. One of the senior MILF leaders who participated in the attack was Ameril Umbra Kato, now 70-years old.

In December last year, a video compact disc (VCD) of Kato announcing his resignation from the MILF was circulated in Cotabato City.  Kato
accused the MILF of “revisionism” and abandoning its independence aspiration. He likewise claimed the MILF leadership turned its back on
him.
It is believed that Kato is now heading the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), an apparent breakaway force from the Bangsamoro
Islamic Armed Forces of the MILF.
Kato used to head the MILF’s 1,000-strong armed regulars of the 105th Base command, said to be the largest and most battle-tested unit of
the Moro rebel group.  Kato’s command operates in the provinces of Maguindanao, South Cotabato, Sarangani and Davao Oriental where he is
thought to have originated from.

Murad, who took over as MILF chair following the death of Salamat, downplayed the ramifications of Kato’s resignation and accusations.
Murad said they are in constant contact with Kato and efforts are being exerted to convince the renegade commander to return to the MILF
fold.  The MILF chair said Kato’s resignation is internal to the MILF and they hope to resolve the issue anytime soon.

Interestingly, Murad said Kato is still with the MILF although he added that Kato just wanted the BIFF to become a distinct unit of the
MILF’s BIAF.
But the cracks are now clearly showing.
While Murad did not categorically said they have abandoned their independence stance of which they are now being accused of by Kato, he
was quick to add that they have never ceded their right to self-determination.

Murad confirmed that a section of their supporters want them to revert back to independence following failure of negotiations to bring peace
in the island.

Murad himself told reporters during a recent press conference in their stronghold in Camp Darapanan in Sultan Kudarat town of Maguindanao
that a “situation of endless peace negotiation and ceasefire forever is intolerable.”

But he said the willingness of the Aquino government to resume the peace talks has prompted them to give peace another chance.

It may not sit well with Kato who is said to be swayed by more radical field commanders who are in the forefront of the battlefields.

In a sense, the MILF has come full circle where it began.  It is now being confronted with the same ideological and organizational questions.

The rise of the more fundamentalist Abu Sayyaf Group out of the ideological Al Harakatul Islamiya at the time the MILF was entering
into the peace process is simply too significant to ignore.  Kato’s recent declaration made it even more ominous.

The Al Harakatul Islamiya was first reported to be already in
existence in 1992.  It was founded and led by Abdulrazhak Janjalani, a
veteran of the Afghan war in the 80s.  The group advocated the
creation of an Islamic state in Mindanao and disdained the peace
process.  His death in a military raid however led the group to
disintegrate into a brigand that is now more known as the Abu Sayyaf
Group.

As it now stands, there is no stopping both Kato and the Abu Sayyaf
from linking up to become a more formidable rebel force.

As the MILF’s Mohagher Iqbal said, it is to the best interest of the
Philippine government and the MILF to strike a peace accord that will
be acceptable of to the Moro people.

But the MILF will have to define the organizational expression of its
demand for right to self-determination.  The Bangsamoro Juridical
Entity (BJE) as an organizational expression of their ancestral domain
was already attacked by the opposition.

The MILF simply also cannot afford to blow this one out for in the
end, failures of the Moro leadership to bring lasting and durable
peace in Mindanao also gave rise to the emergence of more radical
groups among the Moro people.

Will Murad and the current MILF leadership suffer the same fate of Misuari whose peace pact with the Ramos government they disowned and
virtually described as a capitulation?

Answers are waiting for that question and the clock is ticking. (Edwin G. Espejo writes for www.asiancorrespondent.com)

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