International Monitoring Team to probe Basilan, Zambo Sibugay clashes

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/28 October) — The peace talks between the Philippine government (GPH) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) may have been stalled following the rejection by the MILF peace panel of the government’s “3 for 1” formula in August, but there are supposed to be mechanisms in the peace process that can immediately address problems such as what happened in Basilan and  Zamboanga Sibugay last week.

The International Monitoring Team (IMT) led by Malaysia is supposed to convene immediately the ceasefire committees and joint action groups of the two panels and conduct an investigation But the IMT has yet to convene these groups.

Admiral Adib of Malaysia, Deputy Head of Mission of the IMT based in Cotabato City told  MindaNews by telephone on Thursday afternoon that the IMT “will conduct verification visit to Basilan and Payao, Zamboanga Sibugay from November 7 to 12.”

The Head of Mission is presently in Malaysia.

But as of Friday afternoon, MindNews learned that neither the government nor the MILF was aware a date had been set for the investigations.

Civil society groups have repeatedly called on the ceasefire mechanisms set up by both the GPH and MILF  to respond to the situation immediately.

These mechanisms are the Joint Coordinating Committee on the Cessation of Hostilities (Joint CCCH), the Ad Hoc Joint Action Group (AHJAG)  composed of representatives from both panels, and the IMT composed of a military contingent from Malaysia, Brunei and Libya and non-military representatives from Japan, the European Union and Norway.

The Joint CCCH ensures the implementation of the ceasefire agreement and is tasked, among others, to conduct inquiries on reported violations and recommend appropriate action. The CCCH of each panel has six members.

The AHJAG  is a joint action team, again represented by members from each panel, against “criminal elements operating in MILF areas/communities, in order to pursue and apprehend such criminal elements.” It was set up thorough an agreement on the “isolation and interdiction of all criminal syndicates and kidnap-for-ransom groups including so-called ‘Lost Commands’ operating in Mindanao”  and it is tasked to “establish a quick coordination system to enhance their communications and working relations for the successful apprehension or capture of criminal elements in accordance with the agreement.”

Criminal elements “operating outside MILF areas/communities are considered beyond the purview of the peace process.”

How it works

When a major incident such as Al-barka or Payao happens, there are usually two versions and usually, both sides claim the other violated the ceasefire agreement. The military files a complaint or protest against the MILF through the government’s CCCH (as it already did in the Al-barka incident) and the government’s CCCH in turn, submits this to the MILF CCCH in the format both parties had agreed upon. The MILF CCCH will also likely submit a complaint to the government’s CCCH. In the submission of  complaints, the IMT is always furnished a copy.

In Al-barka and Payao,  warrants of arrests were supposed to have been served on criminal elements.  The MILF claims there should have been coordination in accordance with the AHJAG mandate. The government claims there is no need for coordination since they were going after criminal elements outside the “MILF areas/communities.” The MILF claims these are their  “areas/communities.”

Lt. Col. Randolph Cabangbang, Western Mindanao Command spokesperson has repeatedly said the area of encounter is four kilometers from the “area of temporary stay” (ATS) of the MILF.  But MILF spokesperson Von Al Haq says the Special Forces that conducted operations in Basilan entered “MILF areas/communities” and noted that Barangay Ginanta in Al-Barka was  identified and recognized as MILF ATS by the CCCH and AHJAG of both parties only from May to July 2008 to give way to military operations against the Abu Sayyaf Group. Within that three-month ATS, the MILF and their families stayed in Ginanta but returned to their respective areas after.

As  the third party in the process, it is the IMT that convenes the CCCH and AHJAG representatives from both panels, to look into each other’s allegations, and if necessary, conduct field verifications with the CCCH and AHJAG members “to validate any reported violations” of the ceasefire agreement. The IMT then presents its findings to the GPH and MILF peace panels.

The quicker the IMT convenes the CCCH and AHJAG,  the better to de-escalate the violence, prevent loss of lives and mass evacuations.

The present IMT is the 6th batch since 2004.

MindaNews reporters have covered a number of field verifications in the previous IMT batches. There were instances when the IMT-CCCH-AHJAG teams conducted fact-finding missions right smack into the conflict situation or immediately after, when team members could still see the embers from burning houses.

Various groups have urged both panels to respond to the crisis in Al-Barka, Basilan and Payao and three other neighboring towns in Zamboanga Sibugay.


The CCCH and AHJAG of both panels are in constant communication and were in fact in a joint mission in the two Lanao provinces on October 17 to 19, to defuse tensions that had started building up there. The GPH and MILF CCCH and AHJAG teams initiated the Lanao visit and asked the IMT to join them.

The teams from both panels also met in Davao City on October 22 where both agreed at 9:45 p.m. to  an end to hostilities in Payao in Zamboanga Sibugay and had planned to go to Payao on October 24 but canceled it on the 23rd when the MILF allegedly ambushed rubber tappers in Sumisip, Basilan and  killed two soldiers and injured four others in an ambush in Payong, Sultan Naga Dimaporo in Lanao del Norte.

The Lanao visit and the Davao meeting were initiatives of the CCCH and AHJAG of both parties.  But while the joint visits and meetings are commendable, the third party, the IMT, is crucial because it is the body that can look into the complaints from both sides.

Asked why it took the IMT so long to convene the parties, Adib told MindaNews Friday: “IMT is fully aware of the situation and has always prepared to intervene in both areas during the early days of the firefight but was prevented in doing so because ‘they’ insisted it was a law enforcement operations and therefore outside IMT mandate. However, as mentioned, IMT is moving in for verification early November.”

Asked who he was referring to when he said, “they,” Adib replied, “Sorry, can’t reveal.  Suffice it to say that IMT is fully and ever ready to do our job in any part of Mindanao. That’s what we are here for.”

“In fact,” Adib claimed, “the firefight stopped in Basilan due to the intervention of the IMT Team Site 3 in Zamboanga City.”

“Prompt Response”

“A prompt response to the encounter in Al-Barka, Basilan by means of the established mechanisms of the peace talks between the GPH and the MILF – such as the Joint CCCH – is a critical measure of the strength of mind of the leadership of the GPH and the MILF to hasten the realization of a political settlement of the armed conflict in Mindanao,.” the Mindanao Peaceweavers said in a statement.

It said both panels “must ensure that the JCCH will act swiftly to prevent further loss of lives” and that other mechanisms of the peace talks such as the AHJAG  and that  the IMT ”must act immediately and help defuse the situation.”

It added that the  recent violent clashes “illustrate the fragile nature of the ceasefire agreement and the difficulty in maintaining the truce” and that it would be “supremely tragic if the continuing loss of lives will hold back the voices of peace and allow those seeking total war to triumph.”

The latest feature in the GPH-MILF peace process is a Civilian Protection Component (CPC_ under the IMT whose mandate is to “monitor, verify and report on the observance by the Parties of their basic understanding to protect civilians and civilian communities in conflict-affected areas.” The CPC members are Mindanao Peoples Caucus, Mindanao Human Rights Action Center, Muslim Organization of  Government Officials and Professionals, Inc. and Non-Violent Peace Force.

The International Contact Group (ICG) is another mechanism in the GPH-MILF peace process that is not involved in monitoring the ceasefire but sits as observer in the panel to panel talks. It is a group of states and non-state organizations set up “to accompany and mobilize international support for the peace process.” It is ad hoc in nature and issue-specific in its engagement with the panels. Its members are Turkey, Japan, United Kingdom and the Center for Humanitarian Dialogue, Muhammadiyah, The Asia Foundation and Conciliation Resources.  (Carolyn O. Arguillas/MindaNews)