SC stops Palace-MILF signing of territorial pact

PHILIPPINE NEWS SERVICE — THE Supreme Court yesterday stopped the government from signing a land deal with Muslim separatist rebels in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, court officials said.

The temporary restraining order was granted in response to a petition filed by officials of North Cotabato and Zamboanga City, who said the governments agreement on ancestral domain with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front was unconstitutional.

Under the agreement, large swathes of Mindanao will become part of a Muslim state to be controlled and run by Muslims.

The autonomous region will have its own legal, banking and education systems, civil service and internal security force, and these have been seen as paving the way for a formal peace agreement with the rebels.

The court ordered the government to furnish it and the petitioners with copies of the final land agreement by Aug. 8, and scheduled oral arguments for Aug. 15.

MILF spokesman Eid Kabalu described the court’s intervention as a setback, while the Palace said it would comply with the order.

“We submit to the sound discretion of the Supreme Court. It is the ultimate arbiter of issues,” Press Secretary Jesus Dureza said.

“The signing tomorrow would have to be cancelled.”

Dureza said the delay in signing the agreement would not derail peace talks with the MILF.

“There’s no derailment here. Its just a postponement of a planned signing.”

Dureza said the government welcomed the court’s involvement, saying it would allow a dispassionate and objective discussion of the issues.

He also said the administration was confident the court eventually would uphold the government’s position.

Rep. Erico Fabian, who had filed the petition against the deal, said the ruling was “very good news for our people down south” who oppose to the draft agreement.

The ruling came hours after an estimated 15,000 people, many of them of other faiths, took to the streets in Zamboanga City to oppose the deal, which was due to be signed in Malaysia.

In Iligan, about 3,000 people also protested the accord, which could possibly place part of their land under the Muslim autonomous area.

Many non-Muslims oppose the deal because their land could be included in the settlement, which the government hopes will put an end to a 30-year-old insurgency that has claimed more than 120,000 lives.

A ranking House leader yesterday urged his fellow lawmakers to oppose the agreement, calling it an attack on the Constitution.

“Those responsible for this act of concession should be made answerable,” said Muntinlupa Rep. Ruffy Biazon, vice chairman of the House committee on defense.

Before the court issued its order, the administration said the Senate’s refusal to postpone the Aug. 11 elections in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao would not stop the two parties from signing the agreement on ancestral domain.

The MILF had sought a postponement of the elections because the proposed Bangsamoro homeland would include the ARMM.

“Whether the elections are postponed or not, the memorandum of agreement on ancestral domain will be signed,” presidential adviser on the peace process Hermogenes Esperon Jr. told a Senate hearing yesterday.

He said the proposal to postpone the elections was a “confidence-building” measure to hasten peace negotiations with the MILF, but was not a precondition for continued peace talks.

Also yesterday, the military lambasted the MILF for harassing government troops, citing an incident Sunday afternoon in Midsayap, Cotabato.

Army chief Lt. Gen. Victor Ibrado said 20 MILF rebels with assorted high-powered firearms attacked troops of the 40th Infantry Battalion in Baliki, town, Midsayap. The firefight lasted 35 minutes.