ON DISTANT SHORE
By Val G. Abelgas
On the eve of the resumption of peace talks between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), a breakaway group of rebels made it known that even if the two panels reached an agreement, there wouldn’t be peace in Mindanao short of the establishment of an independent Bangsamoro republic.
The Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Movement (BIFM), led by veteran freedom fighter Ameril Umbra Kato, occupied several towns in Maguindanao province shortly before midnight of August 5 after a series of attacks that resulted in the death of two soldiers and two BIFM fighters. Malacanang said the attacks were aimed at derailing the ongoing peace negotiations, which was stating the obvious.
Umbra Kato has repeatedly criticized the MILF, led by Al Haj Murad Ebrahim, for abandoning their original demand of independence for the Bangsamoro state.
Some 500 rebels split into several groups and held the towns of Shariff Aguak, Datu Saudi Ampatuan, Talayan and Datu Unsay in Maguindanao, and Midsayap in North Cotabato.
The rebels also seized a portion of a highway in Maguindanao.
Umbra Kato and two other MILF commanders also launched violent attacks in Central Mindanao in August 2008 following the Supreme Court ruling that stopped the signing of a Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD) that the Philippine government and the MILF were about to sign in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The MOA-AD would have granted the Bangsamoro Juridical Entity (BJE) its own internal security force, a system of banking and finance, civil service, education and legislative institutions, full authority to develop and dispose of minerals and natural resources. The BJE would also reportedly be able to send trade missions abroad and enter into international agreements under the MOA-AD.
The attacks killed 44 people, including 23 soldiers, and brought back peace negotiations to Square One. The Philippine government demanded that the MILF expel Umbra Kato from the MILF after the latter said his group would never give up its goal of full independence for the Bangsamoro. The MILF hesitated to expel Umbra Kato in an apparent effort to use the renegade commander as a bargaining chip, like telling the government “Look what could happen if you do not agree to a Bangsamoro substate.”
Lambasting his fellow rebels in the MILF for betraying the cause of Moro independence and vowing to fight for Bangsamoro freedom until death, Umbra Kato officially bolted from the MILF a few months later and formed his own Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Movement. The government and MILF panels soon resumed talks.
But some lawmakers, led by Senators Panfilo Lacson and Jinggoy Estrada, called on the government to wage an all-out war against the MILF rebels in the wake of the ceasefire violations, but President Benigno S. Aquino III insisted that while the military should go after the “lawless elements” who instigated the attacks, the government must not abandon the ongoing peace negotiations.
Lacson and Estrada said 40 years of negotiations with the separatists had achieved nothing while government soldiers continue to die in Mindanao.
“Peace in Mindanao cannot be achieved unless a tactical victory is attained by the Armed Forces of the Philippines,” said Lacson, the Senate’s defense committee chairman. “It is time we untied the hands of our soldiers and authorized them to fight the MILF on equal terms—and not handicapped by the so-called peace talks characterized by treachery and deceit.”
Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile, a former defense secretary, joined the chorus and said the government should suspend the peace talks if the MILF would not surrender their fighters behind the killing of the troops. “What peace talks are we talking about when they are engaging us in combat?” he said.
The call of Lacson, Estrada and Enrile seemed justified at that time because it looked like peace would never be attained until a tactical victory was attained through war.
For 40 years, the government has sought peace with the Muslim rebels. Many thought peace was at hand when the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) under Chairman Nur Misuari signed the Tripoli Agreement in 1976 in Libya that was moderated by the late Col. Moammar Gaddafi. The agreement granted autonomy to Central Mindanao in what is now known as the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao.
But the peace was short-lived as an MNLF faction, led by Hashim Salamat, rose up in arms again in 1978 under the name Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). The government has since initiated peace talks with both the MNLF and the MILF, but none has come close to a lasting agreement that would be acceptable to both the Bangsamoro people and the rest of the population.
The Arroyo administration tried to sneak in a Memorandum of Agreement on Ancetral Domain (MOA-AD) in 2008 that was obviously backed by the United States, but was stopped by the Supreme Court because the proposed accord was obviously unconstitutional because it surrendered sovereignty over that region.
I doubted then that even if the Aquino administration were able to find common ground with the MILF group under Ibrahim, there was no certainty that it would assure lasting peace in Mindanao because there are many more groups that have their own version of peace – the Umbra Kato faction of the MILF, which is now known as the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Movement (BIFM), the MNLF under Misuari, the terrorist Abu Sayyaf, and who knows what other rebel group would arise in the future.
The MILF wants a substate, the MNLF a strengthened autonomy, and the Umbra Kato-led BIFM, secession. The Abu Sayyaf wants nothing but mayhem.
Even as the government and the MILF seemed near agreeing on peace, it seemed then that peace would remain elusive following the attacks by Umbra Kato and his BIFM fighters.
But President Aquino was right in not giving up on peace. One can never give up on peace. One should never give up on peace, even if it takes one rebel group at a time. Eventually, a workable solution that would be acceptable to both sides would be found. Not every Bangsamoro insurgents could be appeased, but their number would hopefully be decimated to the point where the Philippine military and the new security force of the new political entity that would arise out of the negotiations could easily contain them.
We can only hope that the peace agreement would not surrender sovereignty or violate the Constitution because it will never be acceptable to the people.
Peace has indeed been elusive in Mindanao, but the Filipino people cannot give up seeking it.