Q and A with Ustadz Amiril Umra Kato (1): “Saan ako lawless?”

Mindanews Photo Courtesy of Yam Palma/ MPC1st of three parts

SOMEWHERE IN MAGUINDANAO (MindaNews/19 April)  —  He arrived on horseback an hour and twenty minutes after our arrival at the meeting venue last Saturday, the bespectacled lone rider followed by a band of about 20 armed men hiking down the mountain.

Except for the olive green jacket which he removed as soon as he settled on the bench under the langka (jackfruit) tree, Ustadz Amiril Umra Kato (that’s how his name should be spelled, he says) wore an all-black outfit: jelly sandals, socks, pants, belt, fishing cap, hunting knife sheath and shirt proclaiming “BIFF of the MILF,” the first acronym in sunflower yellow.

BIFF stands for the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, which Kato founded around March 2010, three months after he tendered his resignation as commander of the 105th Base Command of the Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces (BIAF) of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

Standing nearly five feet and seven inches, the lanky 65-year old man who dismounted from the horse, the whip in his right hand, looked more like a stern teacher than a rebel commander. He carried no firearm, just a hunting knife.

In the late 1960s, Kato, born in Datu Piang, Maguindanao, taught Arabic in Lupon and Banay-banay in Davao Oriental. He went to Saudi Arabia in the early 1980s to take up Fundamentals of Religions (“not just Islam but all religions,” he stresses) and after a month-long military training in Camp Abubakar in the mid-1990s, had since become commander first of the 206th Brigade, then 109th Base Command and until December 2009, the 105th.

The mere mention of Kato’s name, however, continues to evoke terror, particularly after the aborted signing of the Philippine government and MILF’s already initialed Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD) in August 2008 when he allegedly led attacks in North Cotabato in protest of the non-signing, an allegation that he says is “very wrong.”

Before 2008, Kato, who has four wives, 15 children and several grandchildren, was enemy number one of the political warlord of Maguindanao, Datu Andal Ampatuan, Sr., whom he describes as “general of the Armed Forces of the Philippines in Mindanao because even if there is no order from Malacanang, the generals obey him.”

Several cases had been filed against Kato, especially in 2008. A P10-million reward has been offered for his arrest and his status has been part of the agenda of the “exploratory talks” (a phrase he questions because “until now it’s still exploratory?”) between the government and MILF panels in February and on April 27 and 28.

The MILF peace panel is expected to report on Kato’s status although the latter claims the Central Committee last week had declared him out of the MILF. “That is only from their own mentality. That is a wrong declaration,” he said, adding Al Haj Murad Ebrahim, MILF chair, Vice Chair Ghazali Jaafar and peace panel chair Mohagher Iqbal “have no right to say that because they are not the founder of the MILF.”

(MindaNews asked Iqbal about Kato’s claim but he declined to answer, saying they would release their report in Kuala Lumpur).

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 the armed strength of Kato at 300).  Kato says the BIFF has no Central Committee but is guided by the principles of the MILF as espoused by Salamat Hashim, that it won’t stand in the way of the peace negotiations between the government and the MILF and will support the agreement if it provides “meaningful autonomy.”

In mixed Pilipino and English, and a bit of Maguindanao and Cebuano, punctuated with expressions like “crazy,” “foolish” and “kalokohan,” Kato spoke about the peace talks, MILF, BIFF Saturday noon somewhere in Maguindanao. Some parts have been translated to English for brevity.

Excerpts from the three-hour interview.

Q:  What is the BIFF? Are you still part of the MILF? What do you believe in?

A:  MILF is the organization of the whole BangsaMoro. Moro Islamic Liberation Front. As long as you’re a Moro, you have the right to be a member of this organization.. like the MNLF before… Because I’m a Moro, I’m a member of this organization. And all of my companions are also members of this organization… The purpose, destination is liberation: how to liberate the territory Mindanao from the sovereignty or from the territory of the Philippine government … how to liberate, to  have the right to govern themselves according to the Islamic way of life (later in the interview, he said “meaningful autonomy” is “okay” and cited five points to explain what that phrase means).

Nung andito pa ako sa 105th BC, ako nagdala ng gyera sa Aleosan. Anong dahilan? Kasi yung military, nag-violate. We have one unit in Tubac, Aleosan (North Cotabato)  attacked by the military. They were living silently there but the military came. What could they do but defend themselves. Then the International Monitoring Team came and delineated a perimeter defense… The fighting stopped for three days then the military violated again because they came back again. So the fighting raged. Until Midsaya;p (North Cotabato). Until here (Maguindanao). That wasn’t our fault.

Q:  This was before the MOA-AD?
A: After the MOA-AD wasn’t signed. .

Q: Because there were skirmishes before the aborted signing.
A: This was after.

Q: There was a report the MILF strafed the CVOs of the mayor of Aleosan.
A: Before the MOA-AD, there were skirmishes in our area but it was more of Moro against Moro, not Moro against government. The military just made that wrong information

Q: Can we go back to August 5, 2008. There was supposed to be a signing that day in Kuala Lumpur but the Supreme Court issued a temporary restraining order afternoon of August 4. How and when did you know the signing did not push through?

A:  It was in the news. On the radio and our comrades in the MILF panel. It was communicated to us.

Q: Immediately? I want to clarify this because after the aborted signing, what came out in the reports is that you attacked those places because you were angry over the non-signing.

A: That is a very wrong information. Alam mo, opo nga, siempre may karapatan tayong magalit sa napagkasunduan pagkatapos hindi pirmahan… We have the right to be angry. Pero hindi kami nagalit kasi kami nag-antay kasi kami sa kung anong sabihin sa taas. Pero napilitan lang kaming lumaban kasi merong kasamahan namin sa Aleosan sa Tubac na pinuntahan ng gobyerno. … Talagang hindi ganon ang dahilan na nagalit kami kaya nga nag-gyera kami.  Hindi ganon, hindi ganon. That is a very wrong information. Pero napilitan lang kaming lumaban kasi pinuntahan ng sundalo yung kasamahan namin sa Tubac.

Q: Immediately after the signing, the military referred to you as Lawless MILF Group or LMG.
A: First, they refered to me as “Lost Command..” … But Lost Command from whom? Government? If government, yes, but it’s not just me. The whole MILF is lost command in regards to the Philippine government. … But if you mean lawless as regards the MILF rules, MILF system, I am not lawless. What was the standing order? The standing order since the term of Ustadz  Salamat Hashim is that even if it’s ceasefire but you are being attacked, you must defend yourself…
You have the right to defend one’s self. That’s the standing order of the MILF. Even if it’s ceasefire, if you are attacked,  you fight back. But you must not initiate the attack. I follow that order.  .. The Lost Command are those commanders who initiate attacks. They are lost from the command of the MILF.  The military has been referring to me as Lost Command to convince people I am an evil person. Then they changed the term to lawless. How did I become lawless? Where am I lawless? Even the (MILF) Central Committee members appear to have agreed I am lawless. They did not defend me. They should have defended me. Where was I lawless? Did I steal anything? Did I kidnap anyone? What wrong did I commit? If I am lawless in the eyes of government, it’s not just me. I am not alone. Everyone in the MILF is lawless in regards to the Philippine government. The guns of the MILF, where are they from? Do they have permits from government? None, right? So the entire MILF is lawless with regards to the Philippine Constitution.  (Tomorrow:  “I am for peace negotiations but not peace negotiations forever”)