MILF chief sought US assistance in 2003


By TJ Burgonio, Tarra Quismundo
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 01:38:00 08/16/2008

MANILA, Philippines—The separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) had sought the United States’ assistance in securing an “equitable peace agreement” because of the latter’s “strong leverage” over the Philippine government, according to a report of the US Institute of Peace (USIP).

In a special report on peace in Mindanao released in February, the USIP said then-chairman Hashim Salamat of the MILF requested US support for the peace process in a January 2003 letter to President George W. Bush. (Salamat died in July of that year.)

“[The MILF’s] leaders and other Moros frequently stated that unless the US government became involved and used its influence to persuade the [Philippine government] to implement a fair settlement, the [peace] talks would not succeed,” the USIP said in the special report, titled “Toward Peace in Southern Philippines,” which is a summary of the project written by G. Eugene Martin and Astrid S. Tuminez.

The government panel held a different view then, the USIP said. It wanted the US government to use the threat of designating the MILF as a terrorist organization to pressure the latter into agreeing to a quick settlement.

“Without question, the US government could and must take an active lead role in any peace process in Mindanao,” the USIP said, citing the United States’ special relations with the Philippines, security interests and investment in development projects.

Within Philippine borders

In a speech Friday, US Ambassador Kristie Kenney said peace in Mindanao should be negotiated only within the bounds of Philippine borders.

Early this month, along with Philippine officials and other ambassadors, Kenney flew to Kuala Lumpur, the host of the informal talks, a day before the scheduled signing of the MOA-AD.

Explaining her presence at the aborted signing ceremony, the US envoy said, “I was invited, as were other members of the diplomatic corps, by the government of the Philippines. Usually, as a diplomat, if you’re invited by the government and you’re available, you gotta go.”

“We do not believe, on the part of the US, that independence for Mindanao is appropriate. And that’s been our policy for years,” Kenney told alumni of the National Defense College of the Philippines gathered at Club Filipino in Greenhills, San Juan.

“We believe lasting peace in Mindanao should be done within the territorial integrity of the Philippines, a way forward that builds strength for all of the Philippines,” she said.

But Kenney’s remarks were made without specific reference to the proposed Bangsamoro Juridical Entity (BJE), which was to have authority and jurisdiction over an expanded Bangsamoro homeland in Mindanao.

The US role in the peace process has come under a spotlight amid the furor over the memorandum of agreement on ancestral domain (MOA-AD) between the Philippine government and the MILF that proposes an expanded Bangsamoro territory with wide economic and political powers.

The agreement was to have paved the way for the resumption of peace negotiations long stalled on the issue of ancestral domain.

The Aug. 5 signing of the MOA-AD was temporarily halted by the Supreme Court on the petition of certain local officials in Mindanao, who said they had not been consulted on the terms of the agreement. See story on Page A1.

House Deputy Minority Leader Satur Ocampo and University of the Philippines law professor Merlin Magallona have claimed that the United States has been actively involved, through the USIP, in the peace process between the Philippine government and the MILF.

Ocampo, of the party-list group Bayan Muna, has further charged that the United States prodded the Philippine government into forging the controversial agreement.

State department

On its website http://www.usip.org, the USIP said it was engaged by the US Department of State in 2003 to do a project to help expedite a peace agreement between the Philippine government and the MILF.

Through the Philippine Facilitation Project, the USIP held meetings with government officials and MILF leaders, and hosted workshops on ancestral domain as well as training sessions on conflict management for all stakeholders.

The activities were held from 2003 to June 2007.

In its special report, the USIP that while it was in close touch with the Department of State it had kept a “degree of separation” from official policy channels.

The USIP said that after the project was introduced in 2003, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and the Philippine government welcomed the institute’s engagement, but appeared to have reservations and lack of understanding of its “quasi-official, track-one-and-a-half role.”

“Some Moro and non-Moro leaders and civil society activists assumed that USIP was a Central Intelligence Agency front organization whose true objective was to infiltrate the MILF…,” the USIP said.

But over the years, it said, the project built sufficient trust among most Mindanao leaders and observers, and affirmed its status as a “track-one-and-a-half, nonpartisan player.”

‘Haven’t read it’

Asked in an interview whether the MOA-AD was in violation of the Philippines’ territorial integrity, Kenney said: “I can’t answer that because I haven’t read it. I’ve only seen pieces of it in the papers.”

She said it was “not a role for me to know the details” of the agreement or of the BJE.

“You know, I don’t have an opinion on the BJE as it is called because I haven’t seen the MOA. I don’t know the provisions of it, and again that framework is really for Filipinos and Philippine institutions to determine,” she said.

Expounding on her earlier point, Kenney said: “We support the territorial integrity of the Philippines. It’s been our position for, I think, 100 years. We believe the territorial integrity of the Philippines works as an institution.”

Oil interest

With a chuckle, Kenney denied accusations that US interest in Mindanao was rooted in getting a share of the Philippines’ potential oil sources.

Said Kenney: “It’s unclear to me that there is any oil interest involved. I’ve made very clear, I think, why we are interested in peace in Mindanao. It’s good for security, it’s good for economic activity. And as your largest trading partner, I assure you, we benefit from the Philippines economically. And it’s good for our citizens and yours, too.”

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