MANILA, Philippines – Despite allegations linking President Benigno Aquino III to the operation that now endangers the peace process, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) said it has more faith in Aquino and his government.
MILF chief negotiator Mohagher Iqbal admitted that the Mamasapano clash “ran over” (nasagasaan) the peace process but the group’s commitment to talk peace with the government did not waver.
“Ang trust naming sa Presidente at sa gobyerno lalong nadagdagan kasi nakita naming seryoso sila. Ang nangyari sa January 25, biktima ang Presidente, ang gobyerno, ang taumbayan, ang MILF,” Iqbal said in a press briefing after the Senate hearing on Thursday, February 12.
(Our trust in the President and the government was boosted because we saw that they are serious. With what happened on January 25, the President, the government, the people, and the MILF are all victims.)
At the end of the hearing, Iqbal approached Philippine National Police (PNP) officer-in-charge Leonardo Espina, who said that the PNP and the MILF must work together to find justice for their slain members.
Asked why he made the gesture, Iqbal said, “We are not at war with the PNP. Right from the start the MILF’s enemy was oppression, not the Armed Forces and the PNP.”
Aquino drew criticism for pursuing the peace process with the MILF after the encounter that killed 44 elite cops, at least 17 MILF members, and 3 civilians. The clash sparked public outrage, and led to calls for an all out war against the MILF, whose members were allegedly involved in the “overkill” of the policemen.
Questions remain on the role of Aquino in the mission to arrest terrorists in Mamasapano, Maguindanao, a known MILF territory.
Aquino’s close friend, Alan Purisima allegedly ran the operation even when he was suspended as police chief over corruption charges. Senators want to know if Aquino gave Purisima authority to do so.
Iqbal said the fallout from the clash was worse than any spoiler to the peace process. He admitted that the early passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) creating an expanded region in Muslim Mindanao by March is now unlikely. Iqbal is the chairman of the Bangsamoro Transition Commission that drafted the bill.
“It should have been passed by the first quarter of 2015. That’s why we have doubts why this incident happened now. Even if that incident is not an act of a spoiler, the consequence is worse than the act of a spoiler. The nation is wounded. There is outrage, and there is too much emotion,” Iqbal said.
The chairman maintained that the heavy death toll could have been avoided had the government followed the coordination mechanisms under the peace process. The police Special Action Force (SAF) did not coordinate with the MILF, saying it did not trust the rebels for “coddling” the terrorists.
“When you are lost, go back where you came from,” Iqbal said. “You have to retrace your steps. What happened? How did it happen? It happened because there was no coordination. That is the issue. As to the trustworthiness of the MILF, we have proven this for 17 years, we decided to push the issue of peace and we have signed many documents.”
The government and the MILF signed a historic peace deal in 2014 after 17 years of negotiations. The peace process is meant to be a key legacy of Aquino but is now at risk, as the President loses political capital, and the public grows wary of the MILF.
The government peace negotiators were hard pressed to defend the MILF in the first congressional hearings into Mamasapano, as Iqbal was absent due to a peace forum in Jakarta, Indonesia.
‘Heaviest MILF penalty is termination’
While Iqbal sought to appease lawmakers, he faced a lot of questions about the MILF’s involvement in the encounter, especially after the release of a video where a man was seen shooting twice in close range a police trooper still struggling for his life.
Iqbal said that the MILF wants an independent investigation into the incident, suggesting that the United Nations lead the probe.
“I am sure not everyone will believe the MILF findings are the real truth on the ground,” said Iqbal. “I personally believe that the MILF did not do that but the problem is speculation and perception.”
He said that the MILF already started its own inquiry. Termination is the heaviest punishment the group can impose if it finds that its members violated the peace agreements, and international and local laws.
Senator Pia Cayetano pressed Iqbal to explain why it took the MILF 15 days to commit to return the firearms and personal belongings of the slain SAF troopers.
Iqbal said the families of the MILF members who died were also emotional.
“Many died from the SAF but many also died from our side. What the families of the SAF are feeling is what they are also feeling. We are dealing with human feelings and that can’t be addressed abruptly. We talked to our combatants and it took quite long for them to decide to return the SAF firearms,” he said.
Iqbal stressed that the breakaway group Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) also took arms from the SAF. Unlike the MILF, the BIFF even vowed to get more weapons from the government.
Bangsamoro bill only option
Cayetano and her brother, Senate Majority Leader Alan Peter Cayetano also asked Iqbal if the MILF will remain committed to peace even if Congress does not pass the BBL or passes a weaker version of the measure.
Senator Alan Cayetano accused the government and MILF peace panels of “blackmailing” Congress to pass the bill or else war will be the consequence.
Iqbal said that a weak bill is unacceptable to the MILF, but he refused to specify what version or provisions the group considers non-negotiable. Lawmakers in the House said they want to remove the provisions creating separate audit, civil service, electoral and human rights bodies for the Bangsamoro.
“The bottomline is a watered down BBL won’t address the legitimate grievances of our people. If we accept it, we will be irrelevant, and the [Bangsamoro] problem will go on.”
Iqbal rejected the call of Senator Ferdinand Marcos Jr to find an alternative to the BBL. “At this time, we are not thinking of an option except the BBL will be pursued by Congress.”
Despite the uncertain fate of the peace process, Iqbal said that the MILF is still optimistic that it will be completed before Aquino steps down in 2016.
“Ang importante ginawa namin lahat. Sa mga Muslim, importante na gawin mo lahat. Kung hindi nangyari, galing na sa itaas,” Iqbal said. (What’s important is we have done everything. For us, Muslims, what is important is to do all. If it still does not happen, then that is the signal from above.) – Rappler.com