Iqbal maintains Kato problem is”internal to the MILF”

KUALA Lumpur  (MindaNews/27 April) —  “The Kato problem is internal to the MILF (Moro Islamic Liberation Front). Leave this problem to us,” MILF peace panel chair Mohagher Iqbal said at the start of the two-day formal exploratory talks here, the second under the Aquino administration but the 21st since the talks resumed after the war in Buliok in 2003.

In his remarks at the opening ceremonies at the Penang Room of Sheraton Imperial Hotel here,  Iqbal said Ustadz Amiril Umra Kato, who resigned as commander of the 105th Base Command of the MILF’s Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces (BIAF) in December 2009 and established the  Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF)  in Mach 2010,  “has not yet burned his bridges with the MILF.”

“On the contrary, he said he will stay within the fold of the MILF no matter what happens. Kato has said that he will not create trouble against the peace process and the ceasefire. He also pledged to respect the good result of the negotiation. What he cannot accept is ‘endless negotiations’ and the failure of government to deliver their part of the bargain,” Iqbal said.
In the first exploratory talks on February 9 and 10, Iqbal admitted that the MILF has problems and Kato is “one of those problems” but added that the MILF leadership is “still hopeful that we can manage and solve this problem; otherwise, we will tell the government, the facilitator, and the international community that he has already burned his bridges with the MILF,  he is not one of us, he is not with the MILF.”

Government peace panel chair Dean Marvic Leonen in a press statement after the February talks, said his panel will hold the MILF to their representations that  Kato has committed to respect the ceasefire and not commit any act of aggression.

“For now, we will hold the MILF to their representations regarding Umbra Kato and his men. However, I am also informed that our military and police forces maintain the usual state of defensive readiness keeping in mind the primacy of the peace process,” he said.

Although the issue on Kato  will be among the issues lumped under “Other Matters” for discussion on the second day of the talks, Iqbal and Leone mentioned Kato in their opening statements.
Repeated questions
Leonen said “it is safe to say at this point that it would, most likely, be difficult to get the needed political critical mass to implement an agreement of the magnitude that is implied your Revised Comprehensive Compact if there are unaddressed splinter groups from your movement.”

He said the questions they have had to answer the past few months are: “After the GPH signs an agreement with the MILF, will it then have to set up another table to negotiate with the BIFF? Is the BIFF still part of the MILF?  If it is, which has true command over the MILF’s coercive forces, the BIAF or the BIFF? What assurances do we have that the BIFF, if no longer MILF, will respect our ceasefire with the MILF? Or, do we have to set up a separate ceasefire infrastructure for the BIFF?  Which has the greater constituency, the MILF or the BIFF in the areas of operation of Ustadz Amiril Umra Kato?’ These are questions that were asked of us and I am just summarizing them here.”
Kato, who clarified his name is spelled as Amiril Umra Kato,  told MindaNews and representatives of the Mindanao Peoples Caucus in a three-hour interview somewhere in Maguindanao on April 16  that they will not stand in the way of the peace negotiations between the Philippine government and the MILF,  stressing they remain guided by the principles of the MILF as espoused by the late chair, Ustadz Salamat Hashim. ]
Never-ending
“I am not against the peace negotiation pero against ako sa walang hangganan na negotiations (but I am against never-ending negotiations),” he said.
“Kami, hindi kami nangangailangan ng negotiation. Kami, kailangan namin ang resulta. Kahit na hindi kami mag-negotiate pero kung makita namin ang hinahangad natin, okay automatic we will agree. Sang-ayon na kami.” (We don’t need to negotiate. We need results. Even if we won’t negotiate but if we see what we aspire for in the agreement, okay, automatic, we will agree. We will agree), the 65-year old former teacher of Arabic in Davao Oriental, said.
Kato said  he told the emissaries of the MILF’s Central Committee to “go ahead. You talk. If we see the agreement is sufficient, we will go for it.”
He said the BIFF will support the agreement if it provides “meaningful autonomy” and cited five points that would make autonomy “meaningful.”  MindaNews last week ran a three-part Q and A with Kato.
Earlier, in 2008, a reward of P10 million each was offered for the arrest of Kato, another P10 million for Lanao del Norte-based commander Bravo and P5 million for another commander, Pangalian for allegedly attacking communities in North Cotabato, Lanao  and Sarangani that year.

Kato claims to have an armed membership of  “four divisions,” three of them allegedly “complete,” each division allegedly comprising 1,000 men, even as Iqbal in February said Kato has about a thousand members, around a hundred of them armed. Military sources put armed strength of Kato at 300.

He arrived at the interview venue on horseback, the lone rider accompanied by at least 20 armed men who hiked down the mountains.
Kato was “enemy number one” of  the former three-term governor of Maguindanao, Andal Ampatuan, Sr.

“Recruiter” for MILF

Because of their abuses, particularly on issues involving land, the Ampatuans are acknowledged by various sectors, including the military, as having been the biggest recruiter for the MILF, particularly Kato’s command,  in their bailiwicks then.

The Ampatuans  dug their own political grave on November 23, 2009 when 58 persons, 32 of them from the media, were massacred en route to Shariff Aguak town to file the certificate of candidacy for governor of then vice mayor Esmael “Toto” Mangudadatu. Mangudadatu was elected governor of Maguindanao in the May 2010 elections.

The patriarch, Andal Ampatuan, Sr., and his namesake, Andal Jr., then mayor of Datu Unsay town, his other sons Zaldy, then governor of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM); Anwar Sr., then mayor of Shariff Aguak town; Sajid, who was elected vice governor in 2007 when Andal Sr., ran unopposed for his third term; and a son-in-law, are among 197 persons presently detained for the mass murder.

The wives of Andal Jr., Zaldy and Anwar  are presently the mayors of Datu Unsay, Datu Hoffer and Shariff Aguak . A number of Ampatuans implicated in the massacre are still at large. (Carolyn O. Arguillas/MindaNews)

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