Thursday, March 30, 2006

Arroyo Appeals For Mindanao Aid, MILF Praises RP Leader

ZAMBOANGA CITY (Zamboanga Journal / 30 Mar) Muslim rebels negotiating peace with Manila praised President Gloria Arroyo Thursday for appealing to international donors for aid that will help developed the strife-torn southern region of Mindanao.

The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) also joined the calls of the Filipino leader for development aid in conflict and war-torn areas on Mindanao, but said Manila should hasten the peace process to put an end to more than three decades of bloody fighting in the region and seals a peace accord with the country's largest Muslim rebel group.

"While we welcome President Arroyo's appeal for international aid and join her efforts to develop war-torn areas in Mindanao, the MILF must say that a comprehensive peace agreement is very important before donor countries can help and start pouring aid to the region," Eid Kabalu, a spokesman for the MILF, told the Zamboanga Journal by phone from a rebel base in Maguindanao province.

Arroyo appealed for aid from international donors Thursday during the Philippines Development Forum in Tagaytay City, outside Manila, to help hasten the government peace process in Mindanao.

She said the peace talks are now on its final stage and that negotiators are expected to sign an agreement before the year ends.
She said: "I believe that before the year is out, we will be able to achieve a lasting peace in Mindanao with your support. Yet the last mile is always the hardest sailing, because that is when the destination is in sight, but the winds of resistance will blow most fiercely."

Arroyo said: "Therefore, to help us through this last mile more smoothly, I’d like to make a personal appeal to all of you, who plan to provide aid to Mindanao as peacekeepers, please consider providing your aid now even as we await the signing of a final peace accord as several nations have already done under the Mindanao trust fund of the World Bank in your phase one.

"A proactive gesture of generosity and confidence will put more air in our sails at a typical moment in our journey as we strive to reach the safe harbor of peace in Mindanao," she said.

The World Bank earlier said it was preparing a 50 million-dollar international development assistance package for Mindanao. But the aid would only be disbursed after a peace agreement is signed.

Many Arab countries, including the influential Organization of Islamic Conference and the World Muslim League are strongly supporting the peace process. President George W. Bush also offered as much as $30 million in financial assistance to help develop Mindanao should the MILF seal a peace agreement with Manila. The money would be used to help the rebels get back to the mainstream of society.

Last year, the United Nations Development Programme and the European Commission have agreed to implement an 18-month rehabilitation project benefiting people displaced by armed conflicts in Mindanao, particularly in the provinces most hit by the fighting and destruction.

The project was aimed at addressing the rehabilitation and resettlement requirements of displaced families by providing basic services, including enhancing their capacity for earning a living and improved infrastructures.
The implementation of the project is preceded by a needs assessment survey conducted by the World Bank.
Kabalu said many donor countries, like the United States, Japan, Australia and Canada, and the European Union and other Muslim countries led by Saudi Arabia, Libya and Malaysia, have pledged to help once the peace agreement is finally signed. "We will appreciate all foreign assistance to Mindanao for the future of the Bangsamoro people," Kabalu said.
He said all assistance intended for the development of the conflict affected areas in the region would be taken care by the BDA being the authorized agency to identify, lead and manage the same as provided in the agreement signed by both the MILF and the Arroyo government.
"It is the BDA which has the authority to spend resources intended for the conflict affected areas either for infrastructure projects or otherwise and other than stability in the region, the economic well being of the country is expected to take off once the conflict in Mindanao shall find comprehensive just, fair and acceptable solution," Kabalu said.
Presidential peace adviser Jesus Dureza said the government will tap the Mindanao Trust Fund for the implementation of various development projects in the region once the peace agreement is signed.
The fund, he said, has been set up by the Arroyo government, the World Bank and international donor countries to help in rehabilitating Mindanao.
But Kabalu said the MILF cannot start all these things unless the final peace agreement is signed. "The peace agreement will be the basis of everything. We do not want to make the same mistakes the (former Muslim separatist rebel group) Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) did when it signed a peace deal with the Philippine government and accepted a limited autonomy in Mindanao," Kabalu said.

The MNLF under Nur Misuari signed a peace deal with then President Fidel Ramos ending decades of clashes in southern Philippines, and accepted autonomy over four Muslim provinces that were later expanded into 5 provinces.

Misuari later became governor or the Muslim autonomous region, but later accused the government of failing to honor the peace agreement, and his forces attacked major military bases and held civilians hostage in Jolo island and Zamboanga City. He fled to Malaysia, but was arrested there and sent back to Manila where he is facing rebellion charges.

Many MNLF members were disgruntled with the accord and most of them have either joined the radical Abu Sayyaf group and the moderate MILF under Murad Ebrahim, which was originally part of Misuari's group, but split with MNLF in 1978.

Kabalu said his group wants a concrete action from the government: to sign a peace accord and give homeland to some 4 million Muslims in Mindanao. "It is all up to the government. The peace negotiations are ongoing and time is running fast," he said.

The MILF has repeatedly said that it is sincere in pursing the peace talks, but would never accept a similar autonomy the government granted to the MNLF.

Majority of Filipino Muslims in the southern Philippines are strongly supporting a proposal by the MILF to put up an Islamic government in Mindanao region, but many of them wanted an independent state similar to Iran.

Kabalu admitted the MILF is negotiating with Manila to share sovereign powers under the so-called Bangsamoro government in the south, particularly in areas where there are large Muslim communities or provinces covered by the ancestral domain.

He said peace negotiators were discussing on how the Muslims will run the proposed new government and were seriously studying new formulas based on model countries such as Sudan, Palestine, East Timor, Northern Ireland, and Bougainville.

"Talks are going on about the proposal for a shared government and shared sovereignty between the Bangsamoro people and the Philippine government."

"The results of this proposal will depend entirely on the outcome of the peace negotiations. Once the new Bangsamoro government is finally set up, then the five-province Muslim autonomous region will be dissolved," Kabalu said.

He said the MILF was also proposing to government negotiators that the Muslims be given an option to choose in a referendum whether they wanted Mindanao to be an independent state or not.

Ancestral domain refers to the MILF demand for territory that will constitute a Muslim homeland. In September, government and rebel peace negotiators have signed several agreements centered on the ancestral domain -- its concept, territories and resources, and how the MILF shall govern these places.

Kabalu said both peace panels are expecting to sign a formal agreement on the ancestral domain once they finally agree to some contentious issues on territories. After the agreement on ancestral domain is signed, peace negotiators will then negotiate to find a political solution to the Muslim secessionist problems, he said.

Arroyo opened peace talks with the MILF in 2001, with Malaysia brokering the negotiations. She said that 80 percent of the peace talks have been completed and that peace in Mindanao is within reach.

Murad Ebrahim, MILF chieftain, repeatedly said that his group is sincere in the talks and is willing to end the war in Mindanao. The MILF said that a peace agreement with Manila would further strengthen the government's anti-terrorism campaign in Mindanao, where security forces and rebels have joined to hunt down Jemaah Islamiya and Abu Sayyaf militants.

Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye earlier said the President looks forward to an early and honorable peace settlement of the Mindanao conflict in accordance with the Constitution and respect for cultural diversity.
"The President is committed to an honorable and peaceable settlement of the decades-long separatist problem in Mindanao in line with the constitutional provisions of territorial integrity and respect for cultural diversity," he said.
Manila said it will not allow the country to be dismembered.

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