GPH, MILF: BIFF act strengthens resolve to forge peace pact soonest

KUALA LUMPUR (MindaNews/9 Aug) – Against a backdrop of gunfire and some 20,000 displaced residents in Maguindanao and North Cotabato, the Philippine government (GPH) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) peace panels resumed their negotiations here since Tuesday, both sides claiming the attack of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) on military detachments Sunday night have even strengthened their resolve to forge a peace agreement soonest.

“These incidents serve no other purpose than to strengthen our resolve to find a credible, workable and just political settlement with the MILF. The sooner we craft our agreements, the sooner we will also be able to fully unmask those groups who do not do justice to the many sacrifices of the many to find a just solution to the Bangsamoro question,” GPH peace panel chair Marvic Leonen said in his opening statement at the plenary session Wednesday morning.

“The sooner we craft our agreements, the sooner we will be able to do our joint advocacies so that our partnership can effectively deliver on our mutual promises,” he said.

The two panels, which last met at the Palace of the Golden Horses here on July 16 to 18, resumed talks Tuesday in the same venue, albeit in executive sessions and moved on to the plenary sessions on Wednesday and Thursday morning. The August 7 to 11 talks are held only from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. in deference to Ramadan.

But for the first time in the peace talks under the Aquino administration, technical working groups (TWGs), set up after the talks last month, have been meeting here separately, also since Tuesday, to speed up deliberations on power-sharing and wealth-sharing.

MILF peace panel chair Mohagher Iqbal agrees with Leonen that the BIFF attacks were apparently timed as the two panels were resuming peace negotiations here. Iqbal said whether or not the BIFF succeeds, “depends on the MILF and the government.”

“Their intention is clearly to shame us and to stop the peace negotiation. But will they succeed? It depends on the MILF and the government. If we are not decided to settle the Moro Question and the armed conflict in Mindanao, then we become their first casualty and their laughing stock,” he said.

Leonen said the attacks were “suspiciously timed” to coincide with the resumption of the peace talks “where the passion is high that there may be an agreement this year.

Last month, he said the two panels were “at the door of an agreement” and that they should “persevere.”

No moral high ground

The BIFF, a breakaway group from the MILF, was founded by Ustadz Amiril Umra Kato, former commander of the MILF’s 105th Base Command.

Kato is facing multiple murder cases for the attacks in North Cotabato in 2008 after the botched signing of Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain, where several civilians were killed and thousands of residents in North Cotabato and Maguindanao provinces were displaced.

Kato resigned from the MILF in December 2009 and set up the BIFF in March 2010.

The MILF Central Committee on September 22, 2011 passed a resolution formally expelling Kato after a series of dialogues with him failed. But part of the resolution read that if Kato and his followers “make amends and be repentant,” the door of the MILF “is still wide open.”

In November 2011, Kato was reported to have suffered a stroke and that he allegedly died. Abumisry Mama, BIFF spokesperson, said in late November that Kato was “still recovering from poor health but we can assure you he is alive.”

The media-savvy Kato, however, has neither made any public appearance nor granted any interview even if by telephone since his reported stroke in November. Reports reaching the military said Kato is still alive but is incapacitated.

Leonen said Kato’s BIFF has “lost the moral high ground” for putting communities and civilians in harm’s way “for amorphous and illegitimate objectives.”

The two panel chairs acknowledged that spoilers will attempt to derail the talks particularly towards the signing phase but both are optimistic these will not affect their momentum.

Momentum

“Our negotiations are proceeding with undeniable momentum. We will certainly not pause because of unreasonable violent acts from those who cannot see that the just way to resolve our conflict is through patient and candid dialogue,” Leonen said.

In concluding his opening statement, Iqbal said, “If we do not want to lose this momentum, then we must seize it by signing the agreement that will address the problem in Mindanao. And altogether, we can face the future with much hope and confidence. “

Iqbal acknowledged the difficulties the MILF is facing “in pursuing the negotiation track to solve the Moro Question and the armed conflict in Mindanao.” He said the radicals in their midst are “not only distancing themselves from the pacific approach of the MILF, but they are branding us ‘traitors’ for engaging in peace talks.“

“Surely, they will not stop until they see the total failure of this negotiation. But by God’s leave, however, they will not succeed,” he said.

He claimed the MILF is confronting head-on the “ problem of radicalism, especially among the youths.”

Explaining that terrorists are not part of the equation, Iqbal noted that some radicals “can be won over to the pacific method of resolving the conflict in Mindanao, as indeed, some are already onboard the MILF after series of dialogues with them. It is a matter of reaching out and patiently explaining to them the pacific ways of the MILF.”

3 categories of radicals

Iqbal, also information chief of the MILF, listed three categories of radicals: “the ideologues, the uninformed, and the ‘rah-rah’ boys.” He claimed they have “gained substantially in winning over the last two categories, but we are still locked up in the battle of the minds and ideas with those in the first category.”

He quoted the cliché, “opportunity knocks only once” in stressing the point that “there is no better time than now to settle the conflict.”

He cited six reasons why: the Bangsmoro people “are in the mood to settle,” the Aquino administration is “still enjoying a high popularity rating,” and President Benigno Simeon Aquino is “strongly viewed as willing to give the peace process all the chances to succeed;” the current leadership of the MILF is “solid, consistent, and reasonably pragmatic;” the international community is urging both parties to conclude the peace talks without delay; the conflict over the Spratlys is “still not brewing to the hilt” and the MILF has “demonstrated itself as a reliable partner in peace-making.” (Carolyn O. Arguillas / MindaNews)

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