PHL gov't peace panel leaves for Kuala Lumpur this week

February 8, 2011 11:49 am 

By Lilybeth G. Ison

MANILA, Feb. 7 – Members of the Philippine government peace panel are set to leave for Kuala Lumpur this week to attend the 20th exploratory talks with representatives of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

Government chief negotiator Marvic Leonen, at a press conference on Monday at the University of the Philippines, said his panel will attend the two-day peace talks in Kuala Lumpur between the Philippine government and MILF.

The peace talks hosted by the Malaysian government will start on Wednesday.

"We leave for Kuala Lumpur very soon to attend the 20th exploratory talks with the representatives of the MILF," Leonen told the media in an interview.

He said the agenda for the meeting include the extension of the mandate of the International Monitoring Team (IMT) and the Ad Hoc Joint Action Group (AHJAG).

The IMT, together with the two Coordinating Committees on the Cessation of Hostilities (CCCHs) — the local monitoring groups and the civilian protection components — form the infrastructure for maintaining the ceasefire between the two groups.

On the other hand, the AHJAG is the mechanism to interdict criminal elements that stray into areas where MILF forces are dominant. This includes kidnapping and terrorist groups.

Leonen said the government panel is also keen on reviving another mechanism — the Bangsamoro Leadership and Management Institute (BLMI) — as proposed by the MILF in past negotiations.

Through this mechanism, he said, young Moro leaders may further be trained to lead and manage in the future.

Leonen said government negotiators would also use the meeting to seek clarification from the MILF over an announcement it made over the weekend that one of its key commanders, Ameril Umbra Kato, had split from the 12,000-strong group.

"We have been aware of the actions of Ameril Umbra Kato and his effort to organize the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF)," he said.

He noted that the possibility of the existence of Kato's armed men was known to the police and military forces.

"They (authorities) have kept their usual state of defensive readiness. We have monitored this development for the past months and raised this as a concern with the MILF panel during our informal talks (Jan. 13, 2011). We agreed that we will be given a full report of the relationship of Commander Ameril Umbra Kato and his armed following during this week’s meeting," he said.

Leonen said the Philippine government panel is seriously concerned with the announcement made by MILF Chair Al Haj Murad Ebrahim regarding Kato's breaking away from the group.

However, he said the group "would rather get clarification from their official representatives before we state our official position on this matter."

"If true, the existence of a separate armed group that splinters from the MILF will endanger our ceasefire mechanisms. It will also make our civilian populations insecure and vulnerable," he said.

Leonen said it would be irresponsible on the part of the police and military forces "not to take a higher state of readiness should this be the case."

Besides, he said the separate existence of another armed group espousing the same grievances, if true, "may significantly put in question the ability of the current leadership of the MILF to deliver on any commitment that is negotiated with the government."

Umbra Kato is one of two MILF senior commanders who launched deadly attacks across mostly Christian communities in Mindanao in 2008.

The attacks were in retaliation to a Supreme Court decision outlawing a proposed land deal that would have given the rebels control over what they claim as ancestral lands in Mindanao.

The attacks left nearly 400 people dead and hundreds of thousands others displaced.

"We are closely monitoring reports of efforts being exerted to clarify the situation between the MILF and Commander Kato. We hope that we see a more definite result sooner than later," said Leonen.

The Philippine chief peace negotiator maintained that the government retains the primacy of the peace process while earnest negotiations are ongoing.

He reiterated the instructions from President Benigno C. Aquino III that the peace process "needs to be inclusive, participative, and as far as negotiations would allow — transparent. We assume that these instructions remain until there are clear significant changes in the situation on the ground or in the position of the MILF regarding the peace process."

"We are negotiating for a comprehensive political settlement within the soonest possible time. Implied in this desire is the understanding that both parties can deliver a just and lasting peace," he added. (PNA)

LAP/vcs/LGI

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