Is Salamat Hashim dead? Is Kato alive?

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/29 November) –  Is Ustadz Amiril Umra Kato dead or alive?”

This was the same question asked eight years ago of Ustadz Salamat Hashim, chair of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

Hashim, the first chair of the MILF, a breakaway group from the Moro National Liberation Front, passed away on July 13, 2003 but it took the MILF leadership 23 days to announce his death.

Kato, 65, the first chair of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (later renamed Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Movement with BIFF as armed wing), a breakaway group from the MILF, has been reported dead since Friday (November 25) but BIFM/BIFF officials have repeatedly dismissed the reports.

“He is alive,” “he is recuperating,” they claim, but as of 5 p.m. November 29, no proof of life has been presented to end speculations that Kato, who reportedly suffered a stroke last week, is dead.

Born in Datu Piang, Maguindanao, Kato taught Arabic in Lupon and Banay-banay in Davao Oriental in the 1960s, went to Saudi Arabia in the early 1980s to take up Fundamentals of Religions (“not just Islam but all religions,” he stressed in an interview in April this year) and after a month-long military training in Camp Abubakar in the mid-1990s, became commander first of the 206th Brigade of the MILF’s Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces (BIAF), then 109th Base Command and until December 2009, the 105th. He set up the BIFF in March 2010.

Hashim’s reported death broke out on August 4, 2003 or 22 days after he died in Butig, Lanao del Sur.

But just as soon as reports spread about his death, most of the MILF officials turned off their mobile phones. The few who answered journalists’ calls, like then MILF spokesperson Eid Kabalu, neither confirmed nor denied the report. Kabalu told MindaNews evening of August 4 that it would take “two to three days” to get a confirmation, citing the distance to where the 61-year old Hashim was staying.

Before then, Kabalu was very quick at confirming or denying incidents, no matter how far from his base in Cotabato-Maguindanao..

The next morning, August 5, the MILF Central Committee, through MILF vice chair for political affairs Ghazali Jaafar, confirmed Hashim’s death in an interview over radio station DXMS in Cotabato City.

“On behalf of the MILF central committee and the Bangsamoro people, I confirm today (August 5) the death of Chairman Salamat Hashim. I officially declare his death to put a stop to all the speculations,” Jaafar said.

He said Hashim suffered severe stomach disorder – peptic ulcers, the MILF later said — coupled with a heart ailment and passed away at 11:25 a.m. on July 13, in one of the MILF camps in Butig, Lanao del Sur.

Jaafar did not say why it took the Central Committee 23 days to announce Hashim’s death.

Kabalu said the death of Hashim “was not kept a secret within the organization but we deferred the announcement to the public because we had to consult the members of the group. That is the process that we had to follow.”

Jaafar said that a day after Hashim died, members of the MILF Central Committee, top leaders of the Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces (BIAF), and provincial chair and vice-chair of every committee of the Front all over Mindanao, met in an undisclosed place where they “mourned, consoled each other, then later decided as to who should replace their highest leader or Amirul Mujahideen.”

Al Haj Murad Ebrahim, vice chair for military affairs, BIAF chief and MILF peace panel chair, was chosen to be Hashim’s successor.

Before joining the MNLF, Hashim in the early 1970s, served as municipal librarian of Pagalungan, Maguindanao, his hometown. The Saudi-educated Hashim served as vice chair to Nur Misuari at the MNLF. But he broke away from Misuari in the late 1970s to set up the “New MNLF” which in the early 1980s became what is now the MILF.

Jaafar said Hashim’s death “will not hinder millions of Bangsamoro people in Mindanao from pursuing their struggle for their right to self-determination.”

“It was only our Chairman who died, not the spirit,” he stressed.

Text messages of Hashim’s statement immediately circulated following the announcement of his death: “If I die, the next generation will continue the struggle – I have planted the seed of Jihad in the heart of the Bangsamoro,” Hashim said. (Carolyn O. Arguillas/MindaNews)