SOMEWHERE IN MAGUINDANAO (MindaNews/18 April) – Ustadz Amiril Umra Kato, leader of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) , said they will not stand in the way of the peace negotiations between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), stressing they remain guided by the principles of the MILF as espoused by the late chair, Ustadz Salamat Hashim.
“I am not against the peace negotiation pero against ako sa walang hangganan na negotiations (but I am against never-ending negotitations), Kato told MindaNews and representatives of the Mindanao Peoples Caucus in a three-hour interview Saturday noon under the shade of a langka (jackfruit) tree beside a kamalig in the midst of rolling hills.
“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 former commander of the 105th Base Command of the MILF’s Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces (BIAF) said.
“Sinabi ko sa mga pinapunta dito ng (MILF) Central Committee, sabi ko sige na lang, mag-usap na kayo. Kung makita naming sapat na yun, ay sangayon na kami,” (I told the emissaries of the Central Committee to go ahead. You talk. If we see the agreement is sufficient, we will go for it), said Kato, who arrived at the meeting venue on horseback, the lone rider accompanied by at least 20 armed men who hiked down from the mountains.
“To see is to believe,” the former teacher of Arabic who finished his undergrad and masteral degree in Fundamentals of Religions in a Saudi Arabia university, repeatedly said.
Told that President Aquino wants a peace settlement with the MILF within a year so implementation can already begin within his administration, he replied, “mabuti kung matupad” (good if it will be fulfilled).
“Gusto ko bukas tapos na hindi sa isang taon. Matagal pa yun. Gusto ko bukas magakaroon ng tamang kasunduan para matapos na itong problema (I hope it will be tomorrow not in one year. That’s a long time. I hope tomorrow we will have the right agreement so this problem will be over), the 65-year old Kato said.
He said they have been keeping to themselves “silently” since the BIFF was set up around March last year.
“We are keeping ourselves silently” and will “guarantee na talaga wala kaming gagawin either within one month or after one month pero kung salakayin kami kahit anong oras… pero kung sumadya wala sa amin yan” (but if we’re attacked, we will fight anytime… but to initiate attacks, no).
Kato explained the reasons that eventually led to his resignation as commander of the 105th base command in December 2009 and his setting up of the BIFF (see Q and A tomorrow). But even as he had set up the BIFF, “ang importante isa lang ating destinasyon, isa lang ang ating pinupuntahan. Pero hindi tayo mag-away” (what is important is we have only one destination, only one direction. But we won’t fight each other). He said his group will even reinforce the BIAF if they are attacked. “Hindi pwede nating putulin ang relationship, ang brotherhood” (We cannot cut off our relationship, our brotherhood).
The government peace panel is awaiting the MILF peace panel’s report on the status of Kato during the April 27 to 28 exploratory talks in Kuala Lumpur, the 21st since the resumption of the talks after the Buliok war in 2003 but only the second under the Aquino administration.
In the first exploratory talks on February 9 and 10, MILF peace panel chair Mohagher 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.
At the consultation on the GPH-MILF peace process with officials of Maguindanao on April 13, Leonen said they view with concern the setting up of the BIFF because if there is a split within the MILF, Kato would not be bound by the ceasefire agreement with the MILF, “which means therefore that it becomes a lawless group.” He also said the common question being asked of them is that they are talking with the MILF now but will this mean after talking with the MILF, there will be talks again with Kato’s group?
Kato, however, said, his group had long been outside the ceasefire agreement because in the government’s Suspension of Military Operations (SOMO) in late July 2009, he and two other commanders – Bravo and Pangalian — were “exempted” from the truce.
He said it was “foolish” to exclude them because a ceasefire is declared with those you are at war with and yet, they were excluded from the coverage.
Earlier, in 2008, a reward of P10 million each was offered for the arrest of Kato and Bravo and P5 million for Pangalian.
The government’s SOMO said the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) “shall suspend all offensive operations in the conflict-affected areas” and “shall revert to Active Defense mode as provided for in the ‘Guidelines on the Primacy of the Peace Process’ and the subsequent reminders on the GRP-MILF Peace Process” but the Philippine National Police (PNP) “shall continue to undertake its law enforcement activities to bring the three renegade MILF commanders and other lawless elements to the bar of justice. The AFP shall play a support role.”
Kato said it is easy to say “peace” but difficult to achieve it. “Kailangan mas sincere. What is the root of the conflict? Kasi ang gobyerno, sino-solve ang problema pero hindi tinitningnan ano ba ang roots. Ano ba ang ugat? Kasi binibigyan kami ng rehabilitation, mga development, pero kung pasyente ka kailangan ng operation, tapos bigyan la lang ng mga medicol. sapat na ba yun?” (What is needed is more sincerity. Because government is solving the problem but is not looking at the roots. What is the root? We are being given rehabilitation, development, but if you’re a patient and you need operation, and you’re only given medicol, is that enough?)
Kato said they may not achieve the aspirations of the MILF and MNLF for total indepence and may not be able to separate their territory from the Philippines, but for as long there is “meaningful autonomy,” that is “okay.”
Asked to explain what he meant by “meaningful autonomy,” Kato cited five points – all of which had actually been put forward by the MILF at the negotiating table.
First, he said, military forces, particularly those outside Mindanao, should be out of their territory and instead, let the Bangsamoro forces provide their security; Second, that the system of governance within their territory be in accordance with Islam; Third, that they be allowed to conduct foreign relations in relation to trade; Fourth, that the sharing in resources be advantageous to the Bangsamoro; and Fifth, that one who will handle governance is a Moro.
Kato cited in relation to foreign relations, that a shipload of dates from Saudi Arabia, supposedly intended for the Moro people in Mindanao during the time of Ramadan, was stopped in Cebu.
In its draft comprehensive compact of January 2010, the MILF proposed that in the exercise of shared authority to legislate and the discharge of governmental functions, the Bangsamoro governmental entity “may, with the consent of the Central Government,” conclude agreements with foreign states affecting its special circumstances and trade relations.”
On the military, the MILF proposed, among others, that “for early return to normal security arrangements in post-conflict Mindanao” the “reduction of the numbers and role of the Armed Forces deployed in Mindanao to levels compatible with a normal peaceful society,” and that the “transfer of powers and responsibilities to the Bangsamoro police and internal security forces be accomplished in a phased manner, as a transitional arrangement.” (Carolyn O. Arguillas/MindaNews)