Amid Sabah crisis, Malaysia sends in new batch of peace monitors

CAMP SIONGCO, Datu Odin Sinsuat, Maguindanao (MindaNews / 11 March) – While  Malaysian security forces on Monday entered the seventh day of military and police operations against a Moro group that staked out in Lahad Datu to assert its claim over Sabah, the Malaysian-led  peace-keeping International Monitoring Team  (IMT) in Mindanao welcomed its new Head of Mission in Cotabato City.

The new Head of Mission of the 8th IMT contingent since 2004, Maj. Gen. Dato Fadzil Bin Mokhtar, took over from ,

Maj. Gen. Dato Abdul Rahim Bin Mohd Yusuff,  Head of Mission of IMT Batch 7.

The new commander of the 54-member IMT, acknowledged to reporters that the changing of command, done at the end of the year-long tour of duty,  may have been “wrong timing” but said he does not think their mission to monitor the implementation of the ceasefire agreement between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) will be affected by the crisis in Sabah.

“I don’t think so,” he said, adding, “we are clear on our mission here to continue monitoring the ceasefire.”

“IMT is concerned only with the directive of the Philippine government and the MILF to monitor the ceasefire.  Everything else is beyond our mandate,” he said.

Malaysia has been facilitating the peace process between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) since 2001.

The two parties had signed a Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro (FAB) on October 15 last year and are in the process of finishing the annexes on wealth-sharing, power-sharing and normalization.

IMT Batch 8 is composed of members from the Royal Army of Malaysia, Royal Navy, Royal Police and some civilian personnel. They were welcomed Sunday night during the farewell dinner for the outgoing IMT Batch 7.

Bronze Cross

While Malaysian security forces in Sabah are being criticized  for their alleged brutal crackdown on Filipinos in Sabah, members of Batch 7 of the IMT were honored Monday morning during the change of command, with bronze cross medals from the Army’ 6th Infantry Division, their partners in peace-keeping.

A bronze cross medal is  given to honor the heroic deeds of soldiers in the line of duty. In the case of the IMT, in recognition of their efforts to push peace in the conflict-affected areas in Mindanao.

The IMT’s main headquarters is in Cotabato City while its team sites are in the cities of Cotabato, General Santos, Iligan, Davao and Zamboanga.

The IMT-member countries are Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, Japan, Libya and Norway.

The monitoring body has a military contingent of 19 members from Malaysia, 15 from Brunei, 14 from Indonesia and for development, humanitarian and rehabilitation aspects, two each from Japan, Norway and the European Union.

Four of the 19 Malaysians arrived over the weekend as part of advance party.

Unlike previous batches where Malaysian troops are brought to Cotabato City airport on board a Malaysian C-30 aircraft that will also ferry the outgoing troops back to Malaysia, the rest of the contingent will now be taking commercial flights.

“They are using commercial flights from Kuala Lumpur to Manila to Cotabato. I don’t know why they will not use their own aircraft,” said Col. Dickson Hermoso, 6ID information chief.

Asked about security arrangements for the Malaysian peace monitors given the crisis in Sabah,  Hermoso said security was beefed up and they would remain vigilant along with their partners in the MILF.

“There is always a risk. Just like what happened to our (United Nations) Filipino contingent at the Golan Heights. These are security persons and there is always a risk,” he said, referring to the 21 Filipino peacekeepers held captive, but eventually released, by Syrian rebels last week.

Since violence broke out in Lahad Datu on March 1, the Armed Forces of the Philippines had beefed up security for all team sites of the IMT in five cities in Mindanao where their teams are based, “for precautionary measures.”

The IMT was established in 2004 to monitor the ongoing peace process between the Government of the Philippines and the MILF. Their task is to observe the implementation of cessation of hostilities signed between both parties, conduct field verifications on reported violations and coordinate closely with the Joint GPH-MILF Coordinating Committee on the Cessation of Hostilities and the local monitoring teams. (Ferdinandh Cabrera / MindaNews)