MILF won’t secede

PHILIPPINE NEWS SERVICE — The Moro Islamic Liberation Front has vowed it will not secede once its future homeland has been created in Mindanao, allaying fears that it plans to declare an independent Islamic state.

“We have no intention of seceding,” said MILF chief negotiator Mohagher Iqbal, who added the Bangsamoro homeland would be a “state or sub-state” of the Philippines.

“We recognize that certain legal processes internal to the government, such as amending some laws and conducting a plebiscite, will have to be done first,” Iqbal said in an interview here.

The Bangsamoro homeland will cover the entire Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao and 735 other villages scattered all over Palawan, Sacol Island in Zamboanga City, Zamboanga del Sur, Zamboanga Sibugay, Lanao del Norte, Bukidnon, North Cotabato, Sultan Kudarat, and the whole of Cotabato City.

Iqbal said the MILF was fully aware of the fears of local executives in the areas that are up for inclusion that the secessionist group might decide to declare independence once a final peace agreement was signed.

“In any negotiations, trust and confidence are really necessary. If we suspect the other side, for instance, we suspect the government and the government suspects us, nothing would happen. So negotiations would necessarily be based on trust and confidence,” Iqbal said.

“On the part of the MILF, we trust the government, although that trust is also accompanied by mistrust. That is why we have to be vigilant,” he said.

The MILF said talks on the final peace agreement with the government could only resume once the Supreme Court had lifted the temporary restraining order on the signing of the memorandum of agreement on ancestral domain.

The 11-page agreement, which grants the Bangsamoro Juridical Entity the right to use and exploit all resources including oil and mineral deposits within the proposed homeland, was supposed to have been signed Tuesday here in Putrajaya.

But officials from North Cotabato who are opposed to the creation of the homeland, led by Vice Gov. Emmanuel Piñol, asked the Supreme Court to stop the signing of the agreement. Acting on the petition, the court issued a temporary restraining order and called on both sides to submit their arguments.

President Arroyo, meanwhile, ordered troops on heightened alert after new attacks by MILF rebels on Army positions following the court order.

The military said it was closely monitoring the situation on the ground, adding there was “no policy of restraint” in responding to attacks.

Administration officials refuted claims by the MILF that the agreement on ancestral domain was “a done deal” despite the court order that stopped its signing.

In a radio interview, Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita said the agreement could not be carried out until it was signed by the government and the MILF and Congress passed an enabling law.

A high-ranking source said the government and MILF negotiators managed to meet informally at the Putrajaya Marriot Hotel without having to go through the Malaysian facilitators to discuss the implications of the injunction.

The Mindanao Peoples Caucus, an umbrella organization of at least 300 civil society groups, will file a petition for intervention in the Supreme Court to support the government’s position that the ancestral domain agreement should be signed.

The Mindanao-based organizations plan to file the motion before the Aug. 15 hearing set by the Supreme Court for the oral arguments of the case.

In Congress, Speaker Prospero Nograles warned the public to be vigilant against forces outside the government and MILF that might exploit the situation and start a war in Mindanao.

Nograles called for sobriety and efforts to “blunt any attempt by extremists to exploit the situation.”

Rep. Simeon Datumanong of Maguindanao said there was nothing to fear about the agreement on ancestral domain.

The agreement, he said, “is just a guideline and basis to proceed with the peace talks or final peace negotiations.”

He added that the agreement needed congressional approval and would later be subject to a plebiscite.

He said the deal as it stood now “is just a piece of paper.”

Lanao del Norte Rep. Abdullah Dimaporo agreed.

“Let’s give peace a chance. Let’s see the outcome of the peace agreement,” he said.

Bayan Muna Rep. Satur Ocampo accused the administration of negotiating in bad faith with the MILF.

He blamed the administration for the political turmoil that led to a challenge before the Supreme Court against the ancestral domain agreement.

Senators criticized the agreement and called for the removal of retired Gen. Hermogenes Esperon Jr. as presidential adviser on the peace process, saying he bungled the peace talks with the MILF.

Senators Rodolfo Biazon and Mar Roxas both expressed doubts about Esperon’s fitness as peace adviser as they rejected the agreement, calling it a “partitioning of the republic.”