MILF assembly affirms ‘jihad’

By Carlito Pablo and Blanche S. Rivera, Philippine Daily Inquirer 29 September 2000

WHILE the military was occupied with its assault on the Abu Sayyaf in Sulu, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front was holding a general assembly somewhere in Central Mindanao and affirming MILF chair Salamat Hashim's earlier declaration of jihad or holy war.

In a phone interview yesterday, MILF spokesperson Eid Kabalu said the holding of the secessionist group's 16th general assembly on Sept. 22-24, with Salamat presiding, was in itself a victory for the MILF, as shown by the thousands of leaders, members and sympathizers who attended.

The military has overrun our camps but the MILF cause lives on. The whole of Mindanao is our new camp, he said.

Kabalu said members of the MILF central committee-Al Haj Murad, vice chair for military affairs; Ghadzali Jaafar, vice chair for political affairs; and Aleem Mimbantas, chief peace negotiator-were among those present.

He said MILF political and military leaders affirmed the previous decision of its central committee to indefinitely suspend peace talks with the government.

The assembly also passed a resolution providing for an MILF investigation of the alleged abuses committed by the military in Sulu in the course of its operations against the Abu Sayyaf.

At a peace consultation yesterday, the government's chief peace negotiator, Edgardo Batenga, said there had been positive indications that the MILF leadership would agree to resume peace talks.

But MILF consultant Macapanton Abbas Jr. dashed hopes of renewed peace initiatives, saying the secessionist group had already declared that it would not return to the negotiating table until all previous acts of the government against (the MILF) are removed.

Kabalu said the general assembly affirmed not only Salamat's call for jihad but also the decision to suspend peace talks because the MILF did not see any indication that the Estrada administration intended to resolve the root causes of the separatist insurgency.

The government's peace policy is based on sending battalions of soldiers, Kabalu said. It does not want to talk peace but to dictate terms of surrender to the MILF.

Camp Bushra

Prior to Sept. 22-24, the last time the MILF held a general assembly was in 1997, in what was then known as Camp Bushra in Lanao del Sur.

Bushra was the second largest camp of the MILF, next to Abubakar in Maguindanao.

Both camps and 44 other encampments and positions fell to government forces in a series of military offensives between February and July.

The government declared victory over the MILF, and President Estrada led the raising of the Philippine flag at Abubakar, where he and government troops shared a meal of roast pig and chicken and beer.

Salamat aired his call for jihad after the fall of Abubakar. He said it was necessary to carry on the struggle for an independent Islamic state in the South.

According to Kabalu, the MILF jihad is being directed by a jihad executive council led by Salamat.

On the situation in Sulu, Kabalu said the MILF had received reports that civilians were bearing the brunt of the military operations against the Abu Sayyaf.

He said the MILF had sent a team to Sulu to verify and document these reports.

It appears that the military has thrown away any semblance of respect for civilians, he said.

Positive response

At the peace consultation at the Edsa Shangrila hotel attended by representatives of the government, military, business and Muslim community, Batenga said he had been exchanging notes and private letters with Salamat and had received a positive response.

We're generating every possible option... and confidence-building measure to convince the MILF leadership to go back to the negotiating table because we all know that the only solution to the war is a political solution, he said.

Batenga said the government was willing to wait as long as it takes to convince MILF leaders to heed the call for the resumption of peace talks and the cessation of armed hostilities in Central Mindanao.

At least 180,000 people have been displaced by the armed conflict between the government and the MILF.

Abbas said the MILF wanted a third party, specifically the Organization of Islamic Conference, to mediate in the talks.

The problem is that the government has completely dismantled the legal and constitutional institutions of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao and the provincial and municipal governments. So what's the use? It's impossible. You can't have war and negotiate, he said.

Abbas also said the MILF was keen on drafting a new peace agreement, with the OIC's involvement, because the government had allegedly violated the provisions of the previous agreement.

But Batenga said: We'll see what happens in the near future. Let's just hope we can go back to the negotiating table sooner than later.

He refused to divulge details of his communications with Salamat, and did not confirm if the MILF had wanted a change in the composition of the two peace panels.

But we will respect the decision of the MILF leadership, he said.