DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/04 November) – Seventeen days after the October 18 clash in Al-barka, Basilan between government forces and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the investigation by the Armed Forces’ Board of Inquiry is “still ongoing” but Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin today said they are learning “many, many, many” lessons, including abiding by the peace process.
Gazmin told reporters after a conference with commanders at the Eastern Mindanao Command here that the AFP probe is “still ongoing; it’s not yet complete.”
“We have to get all the necessary information to be able to come up with a very accurate conclusion,” Gazmin said, adding he cannot give a timeframe for its completion. “It is hard to put a timetable” but he reiterated that “the order is ‘as soon as it is completed.’”
Gazmin said there are no military operations going on in Basilan right now.
“Right now there is no operation being undertaken. But planning for an operation is always there,” he said.
But Gazmin stressed that in pursuit of “lawless elements” in that area, “susundin natin yung mekanismo ng peace process. Ipagpaalam sa area na kukunin mo yung rebelde o yung lawless element o yung taong may warrant of arrest doon sa area nila. (we will follow the peace process mechanism. Coordinate in the area where the rebel or lawless element or person with a warrant of arrest is). You just have to coordinate. That is part of the mechanism. We’ll just have to follow that otherwise we will be violating the peace process itself,” he said.
Asked if there was coordination with the ceasefire mechanisms before the military operation purportedly to arrest a “lawless element” in Al-barka was launched on October 18, Gazmin said, “that will come out in the investigation. We are not yet aware of the… we cannot disclose this yet because we will be preempting the results of the investigation.”
He said the case in Payao, Zamboanga Sibugay is different in that there was a resolution from the local government unit “that the MILF is not authorized in the area.”
“Sa al-barka sinasabi nila (MILF) meron silang ATS (In Al-barka, (the MILF says) they have an area of temporary stay). But as far as we are concerned, there is no such thing as ATS,” the Defense Secretary added.
Both government and MILF peace panels have filed complaints accusing the other of violating the ceasefire agreement that led to the killing of 19 soldiers and five MILF guerrillas. Twelve soldiers and three MILF guerrillas were also injured and some 8,000 residents displaced.
Asked what lessons have been learned from Al-barka, Gazmin quickly replied, “many, many, many. We’re learning so many things.”
“Like (pause) not understanding the issue. You did not understand the character of the people . You did not learn the value of knowing the terrain. You did not give importance to the weather conditions. These are important factors,” Gazmin said.
“But what about the ceasefire mechanisms. There’s an AHJAG (Ad Hoc Joint Action Group) and JCCCH (Joint Coordinating Committee on the Cessation of Hostilities) in the area but apparently they were not informed,” MindaNews asked.
“Well that is again a lesson to be learned. We should abide by the process itself. Because we give primacy, we give importance, significance to the peace process. We respect the peace process and we make sure the peace process becomes successful from our side,” he said.
Gazmin said in protecting the primacy of the peace process, “there should be mutual respect for the process itself.. While we operate, while we continue to protect the communities, we abide by the mechanism of the process itself so that we that do not violate any of the agreements.”
Responding to a question on ensuring there would be no violation of human rights during military operations, Gazmin explained that soldiers are “being required to adhere to International Humanitarian Law. In other words, let us respect the rights of the communities. He said that during operations, civilians should be protected “sapagkat itong mga ito ay walang kinalaman sa nangyari” (because they have nothing to do with what happened).
He said the AFP is “planning to operate against lawless elements and learning lessons from the past particularly the Al-barka incident so that we do not commit the same mistakes.”
In Kuala Lumpur on November 3, a day before Gazmin’s visit to Davao City, representatives of the government and MILF peace panels agreed to “move forward on the substantive agenda” of the talks and meet again “very soon for this purpose.”
In their separate press statements, the peace panels said they agreed to await recommendations relating to the review of the ceasefire mechanisms that may result from investigations that the International Monitoring Team and other ceasefire mechanisms, will conduct in Al-barka, Basilan and Zamboanga Sibugay.
The MILF also reaffirmed it will cooperate with the government for the “interdiction of kidnap for ransom groups, criminal groups/syndicates, and so-called ‘lost commands’ pursuant to the Joint Communiqué of the AHJAG.”
The AHJAG is a joint action team composed of the military and the MILF, against “criminal elements operating in MILF areas/communities, in order to pursue and apprehend such criminal elements.” It was set up thorough an agreement in 2002 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.” (Carolyn O. Arguillas/MindaNews)