Kato, revolutionary, Moro loyalist
Until he suffered a stroke sometime in late November 2011, and perhaps up to his last breath, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) founder, Ameril Umra Kato, remained loyal to the revolutionary aims of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
Interviewed by the Inquirer in his mountain lair in Guindulungan, Maguindanao province, in August 2011, the then 65-year-old Kato said the MILF, as an organization, embodied the ideals and vision of Moro self-governance articulated by its founding chair, Salamat Hashim.
The bottom line, according to him, was the liberation of the Moro people from economic and political bondage to the Philippine Republic. He envisioned an independent state.
When asked to describe Salamat’s vision of self-governance, Kato, however, didn’t use the word independence. Instead, he said two elements were key to Moro liberation—Islamic governance and freedom of the Moro people from political and economic control by Manila.
“So long as the two elements are present” the Moro people will be assuaged even if self-rule will not cover the entire Mindanao and even if there’s no “total independence or separation,” he said.
The two key elements, he said, were what the botched memorandum of agreement on ancestral domain (MOA-AD) provided for.
The MOA-AD, which was crafted under the administration of now detained former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, proposed the establishment of a “Moro homeland” and listed the principles of governing that territory.
“I will support an agreement that completely embodies the MOA-AD,” Kato said.
But while remaining loyal to the MILF’s cause, Kato strongly criticized its leadership for, among others, engaging in “protracted negotiations.” According to him, he lost hope the MILF would ever achieve its revolutionary goals if the MILF leaders stuck to this strategy.
Kato criticized in partcular MILF chief Murad Ebrahim for meeting President Benigno Aquino III in Tokyo, saying it was a sign of surrender to the 1987 Constitution, which Kato believed did not cover the Moro people.
Kato admitted to having wanted to retaliate for what he perceived to be mistakes of the MILF leadership.
He said the MILF Central Committee was wrong in the way it treated him in connection with the yearlong war beginning in July 2008.
Kato’s grudges included the issuance of a suspension of offensive military actions (Soma) by the Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces (BIAF), the armed wing of the MILF, in July 2009 as a reciprocal gesture to an earlier declaration by Malacañang of a suspension of military operations (Somo).
These ended the yearlong war popularly attributed to the aborted signing of the landmark MOA-AD.
Kato noted that the BIAF’s Soma was effective in all areas while the government’s Somo was selective, not applying to his command and that of Abdullah “Commander Bravo” Macapaar and Aleem Sulayman Pangalian in Lanao del Norte province.
He said the Soma meant that his command would not be able to defend itself from government offensives, making him feel he was being “left alone to be pursued relentlessly by government troops.”
In the wake of clashes in the provinces of North Cotabato and Lanao del Norte, Macapaar, Pangalian and Kato were the subject of massive hunts. Macapaar and Kato carried a P10-million reward money each, while Pangalian had a P5-million prize on his head.
Kato said that being abandoned by the MILF leadership, he and the other former MILF leaders were declared “lawless” by the government.
At least 82 warrants of arrest were issued against Kato for alleged atrocities committed in North Cotabato during the post-MOA-AD war.
In December 2009, Kato resigned as head of the MILF’s 105th Base Command covering the strategic areas around the Liguasan Marsh that include towns in North Cotabato and Maguindanao.
He began setting up his own base inside the MILF’s Camp Omar in January 2010. By March of the same year, he announced the formation of the BIFF.
With the BIFF organized, Kato said he wanted it to be recognized as a separate army of the MILF as he remained committed to MILF ideals, a proposal rejected by MILF leaders. The MILF eventually expelled Kato and his followers.
The MILF said it regretted that decision, though, but tagged those who chose to be with the BIFF just BIAF bad eggs.
Kato also complained of being tagged a provocateur.
“Provoking war is difficult. We know that the government has strong armed forces,” he said.
Kato said his group’s armed operations had often been misunderstood.
In April 2008, Kato recalled coming to the aid of a rebel leader in Aleosan, North Cotabato, who was being harassed. The operation by Kato’s group was wrongly attributed to an escalation by Kato of offensives following the defeat of the MOA-AD at the Supreme Court.
With Kato out of the BIAF, he was free to pursue military goals that, he said, the MILF had forbidden him from doing.
This involved retaking lands forcibly taken from families of members of the MILF’s 105th Base Command by powerful families in Maguindanao.
When asked about this in 2011, a ranking MILF member explained that while Kato’s goal of retaking the lands might be just, his military actions put the peace negotiations in peril.
Such operations, the MILF official said, invited retaliation not just from private armed groups being maintained by the land-grabbing families but also from the Philippine Army that could further escalate the fighting.
Kato was immobilized by the stroke, reducing him to being a mere symbolic leader of the BIFF, which ran under the rotating leadership of Kato’s deputies, Abu Misri Mama, Kagi Karialan and Muhammad Ali Tambako.
With Kato out of the public eye, the three tried hard but failed to secure for the BIFF a revolutionary stature to rival the MILF’s.
Styling the group as a nascent movement for Moro independence, the three led it in launching attacks against government installations, the most serious of which was weeks before the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro was signed in 2012.
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