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MILF: ‘Let Moros run their own affairs’

MILF explains substate in South

MORO SUBSTATE Moro rebels raise their weapons during a drill on Nov. 16, 2006, in the jungles of Kinebaka in Datu Odin Sinsuat town in Maguindanao province. MILF leaders say self-determination is the only answer to the Moro question in Mindanao. JEOFFREY MAITEM / INQUIRER MINDANAO

The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) defended its proposal that a Moro “substate” be formed in Mindanao, saying Muslim Filipinos had the right to run their own government.

In an editorial posted on Tuesday on its website (www.luwaran.com), the MILF said it would take responsibility for the success or failure of the proposed substate.

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“The MILF’s formula to solve the Moro Question in Mindanao is very simple … Let the Moros run their affairs. Let them decide their own destiny. Let them succeed or self-destruct. Gone [are] the days when the government in Manila designed everything for them,” the rebel group said.

“The most important element here is self-determination … This is a right that cannot be foreclosed by any agreement or [be] the subject of negotiation,” it said.

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The government, through its peace panel, has yet to formally respond to the MILF proposal.

But in a historic move on Aug. 4, President Benigno Aquino III sat down with MILF chair Murad Ebrahim in Tokyo for a one-on-one meeting in which they agreed to fast-track the peace negotiations.

The MILF, which has dropped its original demand for an independent Moro nation, said its formula called for the creation of a substate run like a state in a federal system of government.

But this will likely require an amendment of the Constitution, University of the Philippines law professor Harry Roque told the Inquirer on Tuesday.

“It sounds like a federal state consisting of the Philippines and the state of Bangsamoro,” Roque said in a phone interview.

“You can’t just do that by legislative action, but through a constitutional amendment,” he said.

Puerto Rico

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Sister Ma. Arnold Noel of the Mindanao People’s Caucus, a grassroots network of indigenous people, Bangsamoro and Christian communities and leaders advocating peace in Mindanao, said the MILF had often spoken about Puerto Rico as a model in its consultations with the people.

“[The MILF’s] best comparison is Puerto Rico, which is part of the United States but has its own government. That’s not total independence,” she said in an interview.

Puerto Rico became a US territory in 1917, but with its own legislative, judicial and executive branches. Puerto Ricans were granted statutory citizenship through an act of Congress.

In 1947, the US Congress passed a law allowing Puerto Ricans to elect their own governor. Three years later, the US government allowed Puerto Ricans to draft their own constitution establishing the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.

Noel was present at some of the MILF’s consultations with the people parallel to the peace talks.

She said that while it was unclear whether the Bangsamoro territory would be expanded or contracted, she believed that the MILF was asking only for “Muslim territories.”

“They’re only asking for territories that are contiguous and highly populated by Muslims. If you look at Zamboanga, what they’re asking for is a small barrio at the tip of Zamboanga,” she said.

But Roque proposed that instead of a federal state, the two negotiating panels review the law creating the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) with a view of bringing about “genuine and full autonomy.”

“One model is the autonomy granted by England to Northern Ireland. That’s worth studying,” he said.

ARMM not autonomous

The MILF explained that the proposed Moro substate would not be an independent state.

“The powers over national defense, foreign relations, coinage and currency and postal services [will] still [be] the sole jurisdiction of the central government. The substate [will have] jurisdiction only over other matters, except those jointly exercised by the substate and the central government,” the MILF said.

“There is nothing to fear in this proposal because the substate, as the name connotes, is still part of the Philippines. It has no army, except police and internal security forces, tasked to do policing within the substate,” it said.

The MILF stressed that it was not advocating a shift from a unitary to a federal system of government because no other region wanted a federal system.

“The MILF respects that desire but it also wants them not to stand against the desire of the Moros to live and run their lives under the aegis of a substate,” it said.

The rebel group also said the ARMM, which was formed when the Philippine government signed a peace agreement with the Moro National Liberation Front in 1996, was “a far cry” from the envisioned substate.

The MILF reiterated that “the ARMM, contrary to its name, is not autonomous.”

“The recent postponement of the ARMM elections speaks loudly why this entity is not autonomous. It is controlled, nay dictated [to], by Manila,” it said.

The MILF challenged critics, specifically Sen. Francis Escudero, who had expressed doubt that Muslim Filipinos could be left to themselves to effectively run a government.

“We say to them: Let [Muslim Filipinos] show it by giving them what they want. If they go to hell by their own making, so be it. They deserve no sympathy. After all they have always been described as a ‘problem’ not only to the Americans during colonial days but all succeeding Filipino administrations,” the MILF said.

Splinter groups

At a Church-organized press forum in Intramuros, Manila, political analyst Ramon Casiple said the Aquino administration should quickly forge a peace deal with the MILF.

Casiple pointed out that the MILF had been wracked by dissension especially after a band led by “rogue” commander Umbra Kato split from the group, and warned that more splits might occur and pave the way for the emergence of a more aggressive separatist group.

He said this might be one of the reasons behind the unprecedented meeting between the President and Murad in Tokyo.

“The MILF has a big problem. The split created by Commander Umbra Kato was a major one because [Kato’s group] was the biggest armed group within the MILF,” Casiple said.

“That is why there is a question as to whether the [present leadership] of the MILF might be able to stand by commitments it would make in any peace agreement,” he said.

Casiple said that after the scrapping of the MILF’s Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain with the Arroyo administration, “a new generation of fighters” began questioning the group’s decision to pursue peace talks with the government.

“It is not that the legitimacy and political clout of the MILF is now doubtful. It’s just a bit shaky,” he said.

‘The non-negotiables’

Casiple said that if the peace talks dragged on further, the differences among factions in the MILF might weaken it totally.

“If the MILF weakens further and loses its legitimacy to represent the Moro rebellion, another group might take over,” he said. “But of course that assumes that Umbra Kato will get stronger and gain the loyalty and support of the Moro people.”

In this light, Casiple said, the MILF move to “relax” its demand for an independent Moro state in Mindanao was a “significant opening.”

He said Mr. Aquino’s surprise trip to Tokyo was apparently meant to present to the rebels the government’s “bottom line,” or the “non-negotiables” that would mark how far the administration was willing to make concessions.

“The President would not have gone there just to make introductions. I think very substantive matters were discussed, but they are hiding the meeting’s agenda,” Casiple said.

But he said this was understandable because peace negotiations were “very sensitive.”

On the other hand, Casiple noted, the MILF subsequently floated the idea of a Moro substate while Manila reiterated its offer of regional autonomy.

He said that while the MILF might have decided to abandon independence as a goal, opting for a Moro federal state did not preclude the possibility that this state would secede later on.

Citing information he had received from both the MILF and government camps, Casiple said it was Mr. Aquino who asked in June for a meeting with the rebel leaders.

The MILF agreed, but only if it were done in a country that was a member of the international contact team that observed the peace process in Mindanao, he said.

“Tokyo was chosen because it was the nearest. The others were in the Middle East and European capitals,” Casiple said.

He said that Mr. Aquino had invested a “great amount of political capital” in meeting with Murad, and that a peace agreement was likely.

“Statements that a peace agreement might be reached before the end of his term might be pessimistic. The tendency of these negotiations, especially if the bottom lines are made clear, is for these to be hastened. So, it might be sooner than later,” Casiple said.

But he warned that this “bold gamble” of the President could turn sour: “A final settlement with the MILF does not mean the end of the Moro story. You have to address the roots of rebellion. Otherwise, another group will eventually surface.”

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TAGS: Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), Bangsamoro, Christian communities, Indigenous people, MILF chair Murad Ebrahim, Moro “substate”, Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), Muslim Filipinos, President Benigno Aquino III, Sister Ma. Arnold Noel of the Mindanao People’s Caucus
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