MAGUINDANAO, Philippines—For Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters leader Ameril Umbra Kato, the recent meeting between Moro Islamic Liberation Front chairman Murad Ebrahim and President Benigno Aquino III in Japan only doomed the aspirations of the Bangsamoro people and their longtime struggle for self-determination.
Kato formed the BIFF after he resigned from the MILF in January. He has been wanted for launching attacks on civilian villages in Central Mindanao in 2008 after the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional the still unsigned Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD) between the government and the rebel group.
Kato, who met with journalists in Maguindanao Tuesday afternoon in his enclave, Camp Omar, said the meeting showed how the MILF Central Committee betrayed the Bangsamoro people.And this betrayal, he said, was courtesy of Murad himself.
“We consider Hadji Murad as the one who corrupted the rights of the Bangsamoro people, the one who corrupted justice. Why? In an organization, a leader is supposed to consult his members first before coming up with a decision. In this case, he made a decision all by himself, without the knowledge of the Bangsamoro people,” Kato said.
For Murad to meet the President discreetly, he said, was an act of “surrender.“ What does a meeting of two warring groups mean? And they even embraced? Does that not mean to say that the problem is already solved?” he said.
As for the government, meeting with the MILF, he said, was really designed to embarrass the Central Committee to the Bangsamoro people.
“That was part of the [government’s] deception. A trick. Why? Because the President himself knows that it is impossible for the government to give in to the demand of the MILF for a sub-state. A sub-state under the present condition is unconstitutional and they will declare it unconstitutional just as what they did to the MOA-AD,” he said.
Mohagher Iqbal, chief negotiator of the MILF peace panel, when interviewed in Cotabato City, sounded dismissive.
“Embarrass the MILF? That depends on how we are holding our cards and playing them … The MILF is viewing the meeting in a positive light. Goodwill, not bad will,” Iqbal told journalists and members of civil society groups in Cotabato City during iftar or the evening meal break during Ramadan.
Asked if Kato and his statements mattered to the MILF, Iqbal gave mixed reactions.
“Hindi masyado malaki [Not too much] but he still affects the struggle, especially the peace talks,” he said.
Lawyer Mary Ann Arnado, secretary general of the Mindanao Peoples Caucus (MPC), said the statement of Kato balanced the extreme reactions that also came from a few from the side of the government.
“In any organization, there are those who really speak against the sentiments of the majority. They are those who articulate the extreme reactions. We have also heard the same extreme reactions from the government side—there are those who are saying that the meeting was an act of treason on the part of President Aquino,” she said.
She said the meeting apparently renewed confidence between the government and the MILF peace negotiators to fast track the peace process, something that is “trying to address the sentiments of the majority who are caught between the two positions.”
“That is why there are negotiations. But in the search for peace, you really cannot please everyone,” said Arnado.
What is important, however, she said, was that many Filipinos were hopeful that the “relationship” of the government and the MILF has provided hope for the people of Mindanao, particularly the Bangsamoro people who were always immediately affected by armed conflict, ending as perennial evacuees or internally displaced persons (IDPs).
What is more worth noting, she said, was the fact that the principals of the government and the MILF took their way out “in search for peace.”
“It was a risk and they have taken that risk. And [such] efforts—which are all geared at achieving a peaceful solution to the Mindanao problem deserved support from the people,” she said.
“These extreme sentiments are out to bring us again to a war scenario. Given the pulse of the people are hopeful, they only validate that the two parties are on the right track and that this reflects the sentiments of the people,” she added.
But Arnado said that the MILF must deal with Kato immediately, especially with the admission of Iqbal that the former field commander was a problem for the MILF.
On Tuesday night, Iqbal assured that a resolution to the issue of Kato was coming out soon, especially with the opening of the formal peace negotiations on August 22 in Kuala Lumpur.
The issue on Kato has been repeatedly raised by the government panel during the peace negotiations.
“We will face the issue squarely … we will confront the issue. A real decision on Kato will come at the right time … and we will do that,” he said.