MANILA, Philippines—The government won’t be distracted by the standoff in Sabah, Malaysia, from implementing its socioeconomic development program in Moro rebel communities in Mindanao, Cabinet Secretary Rene Almendras said on Wednesday.
Almendras acknowledged that some groups were unhappy with the government program to rehabilitate and develop Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) communities preparatory to the signing of a comprehensive peace agreement.
Of course, everything that we’re trying to do, clearly there are people who are also not happy with it,” Almendras told reporters in Cebu in an interview aired over government-run radio.
The standoff between Malaysian security forces and a group of armed Filipinos from Sulu in Lahad Datu town in Sabah is seen by some people as an attempt to derail the signing of a final peace agreement between the government and the MILF by March.
The armed followers of a descendant of the sultan of Sulu refuse to leave Sabah, claiming that the eastern Malaysian state is their “homeland.”
Final peace pact
The government and the MILF hoped to seal a final agreement before the end of March following a series of crucial talks facilitated by the Malaysian government.
Despite the Sabah standoff, Almendras said the implementation of the socioeconomic program, called Sajahatra Bangsamoro, in MILF communities in the next 18 months would proceed as planned.
“My instructions were very clear: Pursue the peace process in the best way we can, to push whatever development we can do there, so we intend to do that,” he said.
In fact, Almendras said, the Cabinet is now planning the next phases of Sajahatra Bangsamoro, and both panels would discuss the implementation in their talks in Kuala Lumpur.
New task force
The President has designated Almendras as chairman of the newly created multidepartment Task Force on Bangsamoro Development to implement the socioeconomic program in MILF communities.
Aquino launched the program inside the MILF stronghold in Sultan Kudarat, Maguindanao, on Feb. 10 by giving away health insurance cards, and certificates of scholarship and livelihood training to family members of the 12,000-strong MILF.
On reports that the sultanate of Sulu had been left out of the negotiations with the MILF, Almendras said he believed the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process had always been “open” to talk with any party.
“[W]e’re willing to talk,” he said.
Going on their own
Statements from MILF officials that the future Bangsamoro government will not pursue the Sabah claim may have caused the Sulu sultan to send his followers to Sabah and occupy the land.
Khaled Musa, deputy chairman of the MILF’s committee on information, said at a recent forum in Zamboanga City on the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro that a relative of Sultan Jamalul Kiram III had asked the MILF representative about the rebel group’s policy on the territorial issue.
“The answer was, we want to preserve it but we will not revive it,” Musa said in a statement sent to the Inquirer on Tuesday.
He said the MILF later sought to clarify the answer but the Sulu sultan was obviously hurt and decided to pursue his clan’s claim to Sabah on his own.
The sultanate, which has become obscure to people outside of Sulu, continues to command respect among locals there and most people still recognize its leaders’ authority, Musa said.
“We have reached out to them. We did this on several occasions,” he said.
Musa said the MILF had told the sultan through emissaries that the rebel group continued to recognize the sultanate as part of Moro history and heritage.
“It is even one of the bases of our assertion of the Moro right to self-determination,” Musa said.
The MILF, he added, has repeatedly told the Sulu sultan that the MILF respects the sultanate’s claim to Sabah and that the MILF will not stand in the way of that claim.
But the MILF, Musa added, has also told the Sulu sultan that it would not initiate moves to revive the claim when the Bangsamoro government starts to function.—With reports from Jeffrey Maitem, Julie Alipala and Allan Naval, Inquirer Mindanao