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Test of MILF’s sincerity

Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 21:36:00 04/29/2011

Filed Under: Mindanao peace process, Politics, Armed conflict

KATO WILL respect the peace negotiations. He will not commit any form of aggression. You should leave the problem (Kato) to us.?

Blithe, breezy, almost dismissive ? that?s how Mohagher Iqbal, chair of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front?s negotiating panel, tried to soothe the concerns aired by the Philippine government representatives regarding the splinter group, known as the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF). The group broke off from the MILF in 2008 and, led by former MILF commander Ameril Umbra Kato, launched a series of deadly attacks against Christian communities in Mindanao, leaving nearly 400 people dead and 70,000 displaced.

Kato?s rampage not only effectively shattered the ceasefire that was then in effect between the government and the MILF. The renegade army?s existence and intentions are now posing major complications to any potential settlement the government and the MILF could hammer out in the latest talks aimed at ending the long-simmering separatist rebellion in the South.

?What assurances do we have that (Kato?s forces), if no longer MILF, will respect our ceasefire with the MILF? It would, most likely, be difficult to get the needed political critical mass to implement an agreement... if there are unaddressed splinter groups from your movement,? said Philippine government negotiator Marvic Leonen, addressing his Muslim counterparts on the other side of the table.

That?s a fair question, and an urgent one. A renegade army of a thousand heavily armed men roaming and potentially terrorizing the hinterland communities of Mindanao is not a trifling matter, certainly not one deserving of a casual ?You should leave the problem to us? comment. Not when any peace agreement between the government and the South?s main Muslim group would hinge on a rigorous and good-faith enforcement of the terms of such agreement, free from the threat of sabotage by an unaccountable breakaway group.

Kato is ?still part of the MILF and is considered an internal problem,? said Iqbal. Those sparse words, along with the reassurance that the rogue MILF commander and his forces ?will respect the peace negotiations? and ?will not commit any form of aggression,? unfortunately run up against what has been the BIFF?s short but bloody history so far.

The MILF?s ?internal problem,? after all, stands accused of the 2008 attacks ? which Kato, in a recent letter to this paper, tried to justify by saying they were only a retaliatory response to ceasefire violations allegedly committed by the military. Whatever the explanation, his rampage only raised questions about the MILF?s ability ? or willingness ? to rein in its former commander. Kato, to use Iqbal?s words, is its problem. So what did the MILF do to mitigate the violence he and his men inflicted in Mindanao?

Given the BIFF?s past acts of aggression and the MILF?s apparent failure to stop them, Iqbal?s wan response to the Philippine panel?s demands for accountability for Kato and his splinter group comes up disappointingly short. The fuzziness of it, on such a grave issue, betrays a rather cavalier attitude toward the mutual trust-building required by the peace process.

Consider the perils: The BIFF, if left unchecked and un-disbanded, could ignite a new war in the region, wreak havoc on the peace talks and send the negotiations back to square one. By now, the decades-old Mindanao cauldron has left some 150,000 people dead and the region itself a chronic basket case.

Clearly, a major stumbling block to peace like Kato is no longer the MILF?s sole problem. While the government panel is expected to extend respect and trust to its Muslim counterparts for the negotiations to bear fruit, it must do more than blindly rely on the other party?s casual assurances that it is up to the task of policing its own ranks.

The panel must press the MILF to offer concrete measures, backed by transparent and verifiable steps, on how it would resolve the question of Kato and his renegade group. As things stand, that is not an unfair or unwarranted demand. If the MILF wants to be taken seriously as a peace partner, it must show it is serious about living up to its obligations ? beginning with making sure its unruly spawn will not stand in the way of renewed efforts for a just and lasting peace in Mindanao.

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