Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Moro rebels accuse Philippine military of violating fragile truce in troubled South

Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) chief Murad Ibrahim gestures as he speaks during a press conference in the southern Philippines with members of the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines headed by Alistair McIndoe and MILF Peace Negotiating Panel chairman Mohagher Iqbal. (Mindanao Examiner Photo – Mark Navales)

MAGUINDANAO, Philippines (Mindanao Examiner / Aug. 11, 2010) – Muslim rebels negotiating peace with Manila accused the Philippine military of violating a fragile truce after attack planes bombed areas controlled by Moro Islamic Liberation Front forces.

“Military planes bombed our areas, although there were no reports of casualties, but the attacks violated the cease-fire agreement between the MILF and the Philippine government. We have filed a protest in connection with the airstrikes which occurred in Datu Piang (town in Maguindanao province) this week,” a rebel spokesman, Von Al-Haq, said on Wednesday.

The attack he said, as two MILF groups clashed over control of a rice field in the farming village of Alunganan. “The military took advantage of the fighting between two groups of MILF commanders – Adzmie and Abunawas – and bombed the village and it was only by luck that no civilian was killed in the airstrike,” Al-Haq said.

But the Army’s 6th Infantry Division denied the MILF accusations and said the planes fired only white phosphorous as a warning for the protagonists to stop fighting.

“Our military planes fired white phosphorous rounds in between the warring factions to mark their positions and show that we are serious in our efforts in stopping their conflicts. However, those rounds were smokes and not bombs. After we fired the white phosphorous rounds, the sporadic firefight stopped,” said Lieutenant Colonel Benjamin Hao, a spokesman for the 6th Infantry Division.

He said sporadic fighting between the two rebel groups forced more than 1,200 families to flee their homes for fear they would be trapped in the villages or held as shield by MILF forces. “The operation conducted was a preventive move by the military to protect civilians and families displaced by the conflict between the warring MILF groups in the field,” Hao said.

He said at least 4 rebels from were reported killed in the sporadic fighting between the two rebel commanders. Hao said the military also filed a protest against the MILF for violating the truce with the government cease-fire committees.

The MILF said it suspended the two commanders involved in the fighting and ordered rebel forces to stay inside their camps while it investigates the clashes.

Peace talks between the Manila and the MILF which is fighting for decades for self-determination, was temporarily suspended in June after President Gloria Arroyo, who ended her term, stepped down without new agreements that would put an end to decades of bloody fighting in the restive region of Mindanao.

But new Filipino leader Benigno Aquino III said he would resume the negotiations after the holy month of Ramadan.

The MILF chieftain, Murad Ebrahim, said the rebel group is ready to resume the peace negotiations, but stressed that Manila should honor all previous agreements signed by both sides. “The two parties have to continue from where we stopped, and following the stipulations agreed by both parties as provided for in the Declaration of Continuity for Peace Negotiation between the Government of the Republic of the Philippines and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front signed in Malaysia on June 3, 2010,” Ebrahim said.

He said if the Philippine leader is sincere in pursuing the peace talks with the MILF, Aquino can resolve the Moro problem in Mindanao within his 6 years in office.

“The greatest challenge to the peace process is whether this time the President has the political will to surmount all obstacles and oppositions including well-entrenched spoilers once the peace talks start or when an agreement will be signed. Running parallel is whether the peace process is truly a problem-solving endeavor or just an exercise to manage the conflict, as what previous presidents, deliberately or otherwise, did. We wish to tell you that whether in negotiation or in the normal course of our Islamic revolutionary struggle, the political aspirations of our people remain the same and constant – we want genuine governance for our people. We want our people to decide for themselves.”

“It is our hope that the Moro question and armed conflict in Mindanao will be settled in our lifetime, otherwise, this struggle of our people for freedom and right to self-determination will drag on for generation after generation. To ensure this, we are preparing the young generations to carry on the great task of liberating our people from the yoke of oppression and thralldom,” Ebrahim said.

MILF chief peace negotiator, Mohagher Iqbal said Manila previously offered the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao instead of what was previously agreed upon in the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain.

Arroyo opened peace talks with the MILF in 2001 and the negotiations nearly collapsed seven years later after both sides failed to sign any agreement on the most contentious issue — ancestral domain – which refers to the rebel demand for territory that will constitute a Muslim homeland.

The failed agreement triggered deadly rebel attacks in 2007 in Mindanao after the Supreme Court stopped the formal signing of the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain.

Politicians and lawmakers, many of them wealthy landowners in Mindanao, opposed the ancestral domain deal and filed their petitions to the High Court and asked Manila to make public the rest of the agreement. They claimed the accord was made without public consultations.

The MILF said it will not renegotiate the ancestral domain agreement. "It is already a done deal; we have already initialed the memorandum of agreement on the ancestral domain. We will not revisit or renegotiate the agreement," Iqbal said.

But despite the ancestral domain deal, there is still a need to amend the Constitution to allow plebiscite on areas under the ancestral domain that would make up the so-called Bangsamoro Juridical Entity and give Muslims their own homeland.

Ancestral domain is the single most important issue in the peace negotiations before the rebel group can reach a political settlement with the Philippine government.

It covers the whole of the Muslim autonomous region – Sulu, Tawi-Tawi-, Basilan, Maguindanao and Lanao, including Marawi City. And some areas in Zamboanga Peninsula, North Cotabato, Sultan Kudarat and Sarangani provinces in Mindanao where there are large communities of Muslims and indigenous tribes. And also Palawan Island, off Mindanao.

Last year, Tawi-Tawi Representative Nur Jaafar filed House Bill 4963 and Arroyo, now a member of the Philippine Congress, also filed a similar bill, proposing to divide the Muslim autonomous region into two – the South Western Autonomous Region and the Central Mindanao Autonomous Region – and that a plebiscite will be held in every village in the provinces of Sulu, Basilan, Tawi-Tawi, Zamboanga del Sur, Zamboanga del Norte, Zamboanga Sibugay and the cities of Isabela, Pagadian, Dipolog, Dapitan and Zamboanga.

And also in the provinces of Maguindanao, Lanao del Sur, Lanao del Norte, Sultan Kudarat, North Cotabato, South Cotabato, Sarangani and the cities of Cotabato, Marawi, Iligan, Kidapawan, General Santos, Koronadal and Tacurong.
(With a report from Mark Navales)

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