Cayetano, Deles clash on MILF ‘terror links’

MANILA, Philippines – “We are in trouble because our peace negotiators don’t even know we cannot negotiate with terrorists.”

Senate Majority Leader Alan Peter Cayetano sought to link the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) with terror groups, blaming the group for the Mamasapano clash while the Senate and other bodies are still investigating the encounter. 

In a Senate hearing on Tuesday, February 10, Cayetano showed a Powerpoint presentation citing books of terrorism experts and articles of Rappler Executive Editor Maria Ressa on the rebel group’s ties with Al Qaeda, Jemaah Islamiyah, and the Abu Sayyaf Group.

“My point is we’re talking peace to the MILF but it’s so obvious they were protecting [Malaysian terrorist] Marwan,” Cayetano said. “More than coordination, the question is: why is MILF territory becoming a haven for terrorists in Asia?” 

Cayetano was initially a co-author of the administration-backed Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL), which aims to create an expanded region in Muslim Mindanao as part of the government’s peace process with the MILF. The senator withdrew his support for the bill in the wake of the January 25 clash that killed 44 elite cops and at least 17 MILF members, and sparked public outrage.

A 2016 presidential aspirant, Cayetano is now casting doubt on the credibility of the MILF, even implying it is a terrorist group.

“We’re not anti-Muslim here. The MILF does not represent all Muslims,” he said.

Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process Teresita Quintos Deles took exception to Cayetano’s statements, and passionately defended the peace process that is now close to being concluded after 17 years of negotiations. 

“There is a history. Every armed group in the world that fought long and hard had flirtations with terrorist groups but since 2003, there was no evidence of institutional links between MILF and terrorism,” said Deles.

The secretary said the Coordinating Committee on the Cessation of Hostilities (CCCH), the body tasked to maintain the ceasefire between the government and the MILF, can confirm her statement.

Deles pointed out that when peace talks resumed in 2003, the MILF agreed to “disavow terrorism,” a commitment she said the government and the international community monitored and verified.

She added that the former MILF camp Cayetano mentioned as an alleged safe haven for terrorists, Camp Abubakar in Maguindanao, has been in government hands since 2000, after authorities captured it following the Estrada administration’s declaration of an all out war.

“The policy decision of the government to negotiate with the MILF since 2003 was always accompanied by dependable, rigorous Philippine intelligence. Certainly, concerns about terrorism were always raised in coordination with the peace talks [but] the reality is the MILF agreed to go through the legal process, fully understanding what that means,” Deles said.

Deles also pointed out that Cayetano’s statements included many assumptions when the allegation that the MILF coddled Marwan was still “subject to investigation that requires looking at the ground.”

The police Special Action Force (SAF) launched the operation to arrest Malaysian terrorist Zulkifli bin Hir or Marwan in Mamasapano, Maguindanao, a known bailiwick of the MILF and other armed groups.

It caused the biggest loss of government forces in a single day but the MILF blames the toll on the lack of coordination, and the failure to use established mechanisms under the peace process to arrest criminals in MILF areas. The group denies coddling Marwan and Filipino terrorist Abdul Basit Usman. (READ: Timeline: Mamasapano clash)

‘We won’t sacrifice 17 years’

Rashid Ladiasan, the chairperson of the MILF CCCH, also turned emotional in responding to Cayetano and thanking Deles, and the government peace panel for “keeping the faith in the peace process.”

"We are not terrorists. We have been fighting terrorism in all forms," Ladiasan said. "Chair [Hashim] Salamat and [Al Haj] Murad have well-transmitted communications denouncing all the allegations, which were translated to actual actions in the peace process. We did a lot to allow the peace process to take its course." 

“We will not sacrifice 17 years. It’s been more than 17 years since we started the peace talks. When I was born under martial law, I already experienced this conflict. I do not want to lose this opportunity,” he added. 

Cayetano though pointed to the MILF’s alleged ties with its breakaway group, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), which opposes the peace process. Former MILF commander Ameril Umra Kato now heads the BIFF. 

“Okay, prove that you are right because the military and police on the ground say the MILF and the BIFF are one. Surrender Kato. Prove me wrong,” Cayetano told Ladiasan.  

Cayetano was unconvinced by Deles and Ladiasan’s rejoinder. “They are killing the police and military. We mourn because the MILF is coddling terrorists.”

In response, Deles requested for an executive session with the CCCH to discuss the MILF’s relationship with the BIFF but senators were not keen on holding one yet.

‘This is Republic of the Philippines’

Besides allegations of an “overkill” in Mamasapano, what made the senators question the MILF’s sincerity even more was its leadership’s decision not to attend the Senate inquiry for now, as it wraps up its own probe into the incident.

Senator Francis Escudero said, “I won’t let the [government panel] speak up and defend the MILF. Let them come here.”

Deles responded that she was not speaking for the MILF. “I spoke on behalf of the peace process, the policy of my government.”

Cayetano and his sister, Senator Pia Cayetano, said they were “offended” and “dismayed” that the MILF refused to subject itself to senators’ questions.

Senator Pia said, “We cannot go by the MILF timelines. This is the Republic of the Philippines, not the Republic of MILF. This committee sets the timeline for the investigation.”

The elder Cayetano said she respected the peace process and the government negotiators but the panel must also “respect” what happened in Mamasapano.

“It’s not right that the MILF will be questioned in private when our military and police officers are being questioned here and even taking questions from civilians like myself. That’s not right. This is not fair,” she said.

Raising her voice, Senator Pia also commented on the MILF’s commitment to return the equipment of the slain SAF troopers.

“It took them 15 days to say they will return the government firearms? Fifteen days to return a cellphone, a wallet, a photo, which is all a mother can look at? How can we proceed this way? Is this who we are negotiating with?” – Rappler.com