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Mindanao Fighting Escalation Fears

Locals concerned at surge in violence in wake of withdrawal of monitors.
By Romy Elusfa
The pullout of the last members of the Malaysian-led International Monitoring Team, IMT, from Mindanao may lead to the escalation of fighting between government forces and Moro rebels that could force many more civilians into evacuation centres, according to grassroots organisations working here.

Rexall Kaalim, coordinator of the Bantay Ceasefire, a group of independent ceasefire monitors, said "matters are expected to go from bad to worse".

Their fears were expressed following an escalation of the conflict on the island of Basilan where the town of Maloso was reportedly attacked by around 200 Moro Islamic Liberation Front, MILF, guerrillas early last week.

According to Bishop Martin Jumoad, prelate of Isabela in Basilan, the November 30 pullout was “unfortunate and untimely”.

Well-known for his work in fostering dialogue between Christian and Muslim communities on the island, Bishop Jumoad says the IMT's presence in Mindanao "is very much needed because it serve as a deterrent to future abuses and violations of the ceasefire agreement by both sides".

Since the fighting between the Armed Forces of the Philippines, AFP, and the MILF flared up in August, international humanitarian and relief organisations like the World Food Programme and the International Committee of the Red Cross said more than 500,000 people have been displaced.

Kaalim – whose group has been monitoring the implementation of the ceasefire agreement between the government and the MILF – said that before the pullout of the last monitors on November 30, they had been pushing the two sides to negotiate an extension of the IMT "because it is much easier to agree on extension than to establish new terms of reference with a different set of international monitors".

The Malaysian government which had helped broker the botched peace agreement in Mindanao pulled out its last 12 monitors despite Manila’s request for them to stay in place. The Malaysians have, however, said they were prepared to send teams back in if there was any progress in future talks.

The Philippine government has repeatedly promised a resumption of talks in December, but is also insistent on conditions that the MILF is refusing to meet – including disarmament.

While Kaalim has said that the IMT "had not been so effective" in quelling the war in the past few months, their physical presence “put pressure on both the government and the MILF”.

Skirmishes are on going in the provinces of Cotabato, Lanao del Norte and Lanao del Sur.

In Cotabato, Ustadz Rahib Kudto, deputy secretary-general of the Mindanao Peoples Caucus, meanwhile, says the pullout of the international monitors was "just the right thing to do".

"The IMT has just done the right thing after very long negotiations [were] unilaterally thrown [into] the garbage can by the government," he said.

A key plank of the peace process, the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain, MOA-AD, extending the land area to be administered by autonomous Muslim leaders, was recently scuppered by the Supreme Court which ruled it unconstitutional. The MILF leadership is insisting on the implementation of the failed agreement, which was four years in the making and had been due to be signed by the Philippine government and the MILF in Kuala Lumpur in August 5.

Kudto told the Philippine Human Rights Reporting Project that he now fears a significant escalation in Mindanao in the near future. "A big war may take place soon and it may go out of control," he said.

Muslim youth leader Drieza Liniding, secretary-general of the Young Moro Professionals, YMP, says it’s hard to know what will happen next. The youth group recently brought 25 Moro leaders together in Southern Mindanao to discuss their response to the collapse of the MOA-AD.

Despite the IMT pullout, Liniding, a native of Marawi City, said he and his colleagues were "collectively working to resurrect the MOA-AD to prevent an escalation". He added they were also trying to bring soldiers, rebels and non-combatants together through dialogue.

"We have to educate the people about what this MOA-AD is all about because a lot of misconceptions around it have caused conflicts in some communities," the youth leader said.

YMP founding president Samira Gutoc said there was already an "urgent need" to address health problems of internally displaced persons following a series of deaths at evacuation centres. Most victims have been children and elderly struck down by diseases and malnourishment.

Amid the pullout of the IMT, Gutoc stressed the need for people's participation in the peace process. She said all groups had "to encourage greater interest” in it.

In Iligan City, Nanette Salvador-Antequisa, executive director of ECOWEB, an organisation implementing peace and development projects in Lanao del Norte, said the pullout means "more responsibilities and challenges for the locals to monitor" the ceasefire.

But she wondered pointedly, "Is there still a ceasefire to monitor?"

Romy Elusfa is a freelance journalist.

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