Photos released to the Mindanao Examiner by the human rights group Suara Bangsamoro and the Mindanao Alliance for Peace, show Bai Ali Indayla, the group’s national secretary-general, speaks before a huge crowd during a peace rally Saturday, June 28, 2008 in Cotabato City in the southern Philippines. An estimated 300,000 Muslims join peace rallies across Mindanao.
COTABATO CITY, Philippines (Mindanao Examiner / June 28, 2008) – Ten of thousands of Muslims held a series of rallies Saturday in the southern Philippines to urge President Gloria Arroyo to resume stalled peace talks with Muslim rebels.
“This is a show of unity among Muslims who are for peace,” said Amirah Lidasan, of the human rights group called Suara Bangsamoro, one of several organizations under the Mindanao Alliance for Peace, which organized the rallies.
Lidasan said the rallies were held in the cities of Cotabato, Iligan, and General Santos and in the provinces of Basilan and North Cotabato. She also criticized Zamboanga City Mayor Celso Lobregat for flatly rejecting their application for a permit to hold a peace rally here.
Zamboanga City was a former Muslim province and part of the Sultanate of Sulu and North Borneo, but many of its original inhabitants were forced out by Christian settlers.
Lidasan said government troops also prevented about a thousand Muslims on board six trucks en route to General Santos City from North Cotabato.
Bai Ali Indayla, Suara Bangsamoro secretary general, said more than 300,000 people attended the peace rallies across Mindanao.
Peace talks between Manila and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front were stalled over the issue of the ancestral domain, which the rebels demanded. The ancestral domain is the most important aspect in the seven-year old negotiations before the MILF, the country’s largest Muslim rebel group, can sign a peace deal with the Arroyo government.
The MILF, an army of about 12,000 mujahideen, accused the government peace panel headed by Rodolfo Garcia of reneging on a deal that would grant more than four million Muslims in the Philippines’ troubled south a separate homeland.
The talks were stalled since last year and since then sporadic clashes between soldiers and rebels continue in several provinces in Mindanao, including Basilan Island in the Sulu Archipelago which left dozens of people dead and wounded on both sides.
Just this week, rebel forces attacked power pylons and military posts in Basilan, Maguindanao, North Cotabato and Sarangani provinces. And government troops are waiting for orders to strike hard on the MILF and launch fresh offensives if the peace talks fail.
On Friday night, MILF forces attacked several army detachments in the towns of Pikit, Aleosan and Midsayap in North Cotabato province, although there were no reports of military casualties, according to Lt. Col. Julieto Ando, a spokesman for the 6th Infantry Division.
“We have been attacked again by the MILF and rebels continue to harass government forces despite a cease-fire agreement,” he said.
Col. Daniel Lucero, chief of the Philippine Army’s Civil Affairs, said the MILF should stop attacking military forces and instead support government calls for ppeace and unity in Mindanao.
“It is apparent that the MILF is not interested in supporting the nation’s call for peace in Mindanao. The atrocities committed by rebels against peace-loving communities only manifest their rogue attitudes which block out path towards an everlasting peace in Mindanao,” Lucero said.
The MILF has warned that the peace talks may collapse unless the government honors its commitment to grant Muslims their ancestral lands. Manila has previously blamed the MILF as behind the spate of bombings in Mindanao and accused rebel leaders of coddling Abu Sayyaf and Jemaah Islamiya militants, including suspected Al-Qaeda terrorists.
The Mindanao People’s Coalition for Peace and Development, which is composed of civil society groups and non-government organizations in the southern Philippines, also appealed to both the MILF and the Arroyo government to resume stalled peace talks.
But Lidasan said the fighting in Mindanao was triggered by military intrusion in areas where the MILF is actively operating. She said the fighting already displaced more than 3,000 people in Sarangani province alone and several thousands more in North Cotabato and Basilan Island.
“We challenge President Gloria Arroyo to be sincere in the peace negotiations and stop its declarations of all out war in response to the impasse in the peace negotiations,” Lidasan said.
Manila opened up peace talks with the MILF in 2001 and signed a truce agreement with the MILF, a breakaway faction of the larger Moro National Liberation Front which signed a peace deal with the government in 1996. (Mindanao Examiner)