The precarious road to peace and genuine autonomy for the Bangsamoro people

Muslimin Sema, chair of a Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) faction that attended the ARMM Peace Summit last September said “The MNLF has accepted autonomy, as long as it is genuine, as a viable solution for the Bangsamoro homeland, and the MILF is only negotiating for the remaining Muslim-dominated territories which were left out owing to the illegal plebiscite conducted unilaterally by the GRP in 2001 despite the MNLF’s opposition,”

These similar sounding demands of the MNLF and the MILF for ARMM and its expansion seemed to spring from the limited autonomy allowed for ARMM.

MindaNews reported that ARMM Executive Secretary Naguib Sinarimbo said in their Peace Summit press conference last September that the “ARMM is being treated as a mere local government unit in disregard of its being a Special Autonomous Region”.

At that press conference, Sinarimbo acknowledged the Aquino government’s catchphrase for the summit, that “there has to be a paradigm shift in the governance of the regional autonomy.” Sinarimbo said “leaders should not see themselves only as mere adjuncts but should assert the right to self-determination.”

The participants to that summit reportedly urged the MNLF and MILF to “have a common stand for the settlement of the Southern Philippine Conflict;” that ARMM be mandated to facilitate the implementation of the 1996 GRP-MNLF Final Peace Agreement (FPA); and that there should be a “strong assertion of the character of ARMM as a Special Autonomous Region, and not as a Local Government Unit.”

In an illustration of the limits of ARMM autonomy, Amirah Ali Lidasan, representative of Healing Democracy Project in Maguindanao, said, the ARMM “annually begs for a small amount of budget from Congress because it does not have control over its natural resources.”

She said the ARMM remains poor because “it is the national government that gets the huge profit from selling our oil and natural gas resources to foreign corporations such as Exxon Mobil, Petronas and UniOil.” She added that it is the same national government that sold their lands to multinational companies that transformed farmers’ lands to agricultural plantations. And it is the same national government that opened mining explorations and extractions to foreign companies to exhaust all their gold and silver, and other minerals.

Despite the existing Final Peace Agreement that gave the MNLF leverage to ask for the ARMM’s share from the revenues derived from the region, Lidasan said, the MNLF had to fight for it with the national government. She added that the MNLF went back from the recently concluded exploratory talks between the GPH and the MNLF in Jeddah, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia “with a sad note that the national government still has not approved revenue sharing and expansion of the ARMM area.”

In the ARMM Peace Summit, Sinarimbo said, the ARMM is restricted to exploit strategic minerals, according to RA 9054, which amended the Organic Act governing the ARMM. It is why they have “poor access to and control over the exploitation and utilization of strategic resources.”

According to MindaNews, the Summit recommended amending the provision in the law to include the control and supervision over the exploration, utilization, development and protection of strategic minerals. It also recommended the devolution of the Department of Energy, Bureau of Mines and Minerals; creation of the Ligwasan Marsh Development Authority; full control over and management of Lake Lanao watershed by the ARMM and issuance of a national directive for the joint management of Sulu Oil Exploration, Tawi-tawi Gas Exploration, Watershed development and other similar future projects.

On the weak fiscal autonomy, Sinarimbo cited, among other issues, the fact that revenue-generating agencies such as attached agencies of the Department of Transportation and Communications have not been devolved to the ARMM.

Questions of sincerity

Reports cite the support of various groups in Mindanao to the ongoing peace negotiations between the Philippine government and Moro fronts, in hopes that a peace settlement may at last be forged and implemented. The ARMM Peace Summit, where the MNLF under Nur Misuari and the MILF were absent, recommended, for instance, the “resumption and conclusion of the peace process between GRP and Moro fronts;” the implementation of a comprehensive rehabilitation program for the internally displaced persons in the ARMM and the dismantling of private armed groups and imposition of gun ban.”

But charges that the Philippine government is insincere in truly concluding peace talks remained in some circles of the Bangsamoro. From the “insincerity of the GRP to implement the letter and spirit of the 1996 FPA,” the Peace Summit participants, for example, recommended the resumption of tripartite review of FPA and amendment of RA 9054 to fully comply with the provisions of the Final Peace Agreement.

Even within the MILF, some elements are reportedly questioning the government sincerity.

“To see is to believe,” this is what the MILF Commander Ustadz Ameril Umbra Kato reportedly told Carolyn Arguillas of MindaNews last April, when he was told about the projected one-year timeframe of the political settlement between the MILF and the Philippine government.

“They’ve been saying that for many years now,” Kato said of Aquino’s promised settlement soon. “The MOA-AD (Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain) proved the government was just deceiving the Bangsamoro. Last February 9, they said 25 prisoners would be freed. Now it’s down to five but we were told this is still subject for review. What kind of negotiation is that? It’s difficult to trust the government unless we see its sincerity,” he told Arguillas in an interview.

Ameril Umbra Kato was the commander of the MILF’s 105th Base Command who was reported to have led renewed hostilities after the Arroyo government abandoned the MOA-AD in 2008. But Kato told Arguillas in the same interview somewhere in Maguindanao that he and his forces had only been forced to retaliate when the Philippine army “attacked” them. He sought to correct the grave disinformation being spread by the AFP against him.

The alleged misinformation had been used by the AFP as justification in targeting him for military operations, despite the so-called ceasefire with the MILF.

Kato is still reportedly within the MILF, even if he has formed the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) which, he said, was an effort to defend himself from attacks of the AFP.

Arguillas reported in MindaNews that Kato said his group had long been outside the ceasefire agreement because in the government’s Suspension of Military Operations (SOMO) in late July 2009, he and two other commanders – Bravo and Pangalian — were “exempted” from the truce.

Kato said the two parties (MILF and Philippine government) agreed to a ceasefire but excluded him and commanders Bravo of Lanao del Norte and Alim Ali Pangalian of Sarangani from the coverage for their role in the skirmishes in August 2008 in North Cotabato and Lanao del Norte, after the Supreme Court declared the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD) as unconstitutional.

Arguillas noted that both Kato and Bravo now carry a P10-million ($230 thousand) reward for their capture, while Pangalian has a P5-million ($115 thousand) bounty dead or alive.

His “brothers” in the MILF peace panel, such as Mohagher Iqbal, chairman of MILF peace panel, said it was the Philippine government that had driven Kato who has become frustrated with the so far failed peace negotiations with the government.

Kato told MindaNews he would respect the peace settlement, if that indeed would be signed … “I am for peace negotiations but not peace negotiations forever”, he said. He said he remains part of the MILF and that he would not violate the ceasefire. They would retaliate only if provoked, but they would not initiate fighting. ()

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