Politics delays relief operations in Sulu

Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process Jesus Dureza told a media forum on 'Environment as a Peace Issue' that it took time for relief groups to firm up operations because local officials who are candidates for the May 14 elections may take advantage of the situation.

He said there is a convergence of groups distributing relief goods in the area, among them the Philippine National Red Cross, USAID, World Food Program (WFP), the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (OPAPP) and non-government organizations.

As of April 21, the Area Coordination Council (ACC) of Sulu had recorded 10,674 families or at least 50,000 persons displaced. The displacement was triggered by clashes between government troops and the Moro National Liberation Front, with whom it signed a  “final peace agreement” in September 1996 but whose implementation has been problematic it will be the subject of a tripartite review with the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) in Jeddah in July.

MindaNews sources in Sulu, said the problem is not on the part of the aid agencies but on the politicians.

One example, the sources said, is on the use of the warehouse. The office of Governor Benjamin Loong  reportedly objected to the use of the warehouse of the Integrated Provincial Health Office (IPHO) by the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) and recommended instead another warehouse because the brother of IPHO chief Dr. Farah Tan-Omar is Sakur Tan, former governor who is running again for governor.

The warehouses proposed by the office of the governor, however, could not meet the specifications required by the aid agency.

The governor could not be reached for comment. His executive assistant, Don Loong, could not be reached by phone, too.

“We are using government warehouses,” Alghassim Wurie, WFP deputy country director, said when MindaNews asked him about the warehouse problem in a telephone interview Wednesday night.

The WFP’s goods are presently stored in the warehouses of the IPHO, the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) and the Philippine National Red Cross (PNRC).

MindaNews sources said this was the product of a compromise agreement.

But the goods at IPHO will be re-bagged and will remain there for only one night, the sources said.

Wurie, who is presently in Sulu, told MindaNews they are still “discussing with partners” on how best to facilitate immediate assistance to the evacuees.

The WFP is initially distributing 3,402 sacks of rice and mongo beans. Wurie said they were able to visit a school-turned-evacuation center in Indanan, Sulu Tuesday. He said he saw “mostly women and children.”

On April 19, the WFP announced in a press statement that it would provide 1,700 bags of rice to assist the then 42,000 villagers displaced by the conflict in seven towns of Sulu.

Another problem faced by aid agencies is determining exactly how many evacuees there are, to guide them on the number of goods to procure.

Cocoy Tulawie of the Consortium on Bangsamoro Civil Society (CBCS) told MindaNews that his group decided to just focus on the “least served areas,” those hardly reached by government or international humanitarian agencies.

He said they tapped local donors and managed to serve 250 families last week and “hopefully serve another 600 families this Saturday.”

Dureza told the media forum in Davao City that they were able to come up with an arrangement for the Philippine National Red Cross to lead the distribution in Sulu and for the Department of Social Welfare and Development to assist.

He said they have to make sure politicians are not in the frontline because it is a prohibited act during elections. But Dureza acknowledged it is more difficult because it is actually the local government units led by many incumbent officials who are in touch on the ground.

Dureza said orders had been issued for relief operations to proceed on condition that no politician would take part.

He said AFP chief of staff Hermogenes Esperon had ordered a deceleration of military operations against the group of MNLF commander Habier Malik to allow relief operations. He said they could not stop the operations because the pursuit against Malik is based on his criminal acts. The military has accused Malik of bombing a Marine camp in Panamao, Sulu.