Real Reason for Last Week’s Resumption of War in Mindanao
Last week, the Philippine military and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) resumed war in the southern Philippines province of Cotabato. At first, the Philippine government said they were attacking the MILF for harboring a kidnap group. Then just yesterday, they admitted that they were really after the MILF after all. More than 80,000 refugees have been displaced from their homes.
Below is a very interesting article that came out in a major daily suggesting that the real reason for the war is to force the people to leave their communities to make way for foreign investments in the area.
Herbert Docena – Research Associate – Focus on the Global South
What really caused the war? By ROMY ELUSFA
PIKIT, North Cotabato – The Army says they are running against lawless elements involved in kidnapping, bombing and terror- ism, but the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) believes otherwise, saying that the Front is the actual target of the soldiers.
In interviews just as the war started, Gen. Narciso Abaya, Southern Command chief; Gen. Generoso Senga, chief of the Sixth Infantry Division; Col. Cardozo Luna, commander of the 602nd Brigade whose over 2,000 troops are directly engaged in the fighting; and even Maj. Julieto Ando would very noticeably slip their tongue and mention the MILF as the forces they are running after, but would later correct it to emphasize that it is the lawless elements that they wanted to flush out.
MILF spokesman Eid Kabalu believe that the assault against the Front was part of the government’s plan to pressure them into signing a draft peace agreement prepared by the government negotiating panel that has been talking peace with the MILF since December 1993.
Luna would later say that “their being MILF members is only consequential.”
In December last year, just as the peace process with the MILF reached nine years, Irene Santiago, a senior member of the government peace panel, announced that they wanted the agreement signed within the first quarter of this year because dragging the peace negotiations beyond their time-frame would “politicize the talks” considering the 2004 presidential election.
The rank-and-file soldiers at the battle ground would not, however, lie as not one among 14 of them that the journalists asked would even mention the Pentagon kidnap-for-ransom gang as their enemy. The officials would never fail to mention in interviews the kidnap gang as its objective.
“Mga rebelde” or “mga MILF,” (the rebels or the MILF) are the common answers of the soldiers when asked who their opponents are.
Peace advocate Fr. Bert Layson, parish priest of this town and head of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate’s Interreligious Dialogue and Tri-People Program, would say that the soldiers in Pikit were long aware of the presence and movements of the MILF guerrillas in the area but never assaulted them “because of the existing cease-fire agreement” and because of the fact that “they have not been doing criminal acts nor engaged in harassment against civilians.”
Layson’s claim was confirmed by soldiers and government militias in the villages of Panicupan, Nalapaan, Takepan, Dalingawen, Lagundi and Ginatilan, the six barangays that have been declared by the communities, government, MILF and nongovernment organizations as “Space for Peace.”
On their way to the evacuation centers, some evacuees would not deny the fact that MILF members were in their villages, but they would say that the rebels never harassed them, hence, not the cause of their exodus.
“Dumating kasi ang military [Because the soldiers came],” was the common response of children, who comprise some 70 percent of the evacuees, women and elderly when asked why they left their respective barangays.
The 2,500-hectare “main battlefield” within the Liguasan Marsh area, which Luna said is composed of barangays Bagoinged, Buliok, Kabasalan and Bulol, is also a known enclave of the MILF where government chief negotiator Jesus Dureza usually meets MILF chairman Hashim Salamat.
Even if he was fully aware of the cease-fire agreement between the government and the MILF, Luna believes his men have not violated a single provision of the peace agreement because they were only running against lawless elements who sought refuge in the known “MILF area.”
Luna’s declaration that the entire 200,000-hectare Liguasan Marsh could be a “potential” battlefield has all the more strengthened the suspicion of many nongovernment organizations that the war, which established a pattern of occurrence every three years, has been “planned” by the government and foreign investors because of their development and investment projects in the marsh.
Liguasan Marsh has been a subject of development plans since the time of ousted President Marcos, who organized the Southern Philippines Development Authority to spearhead, among others, a study on the potentials of the marsh that covers four provinces in Mindanao.
Adel Nayal, coordinator of the Immaculate Conception Parish Integrated Rehabilitation Program, believes that the assault on identified MILF enclaves in this town has long been planned as she recalled the military announcement that said: “After Basilan, Pikit is next,” referring to the Army assault against the Abu Sayyaf group in Basilan.
The war started here on February 11, but the evacuation commenced almost simultaneous with the positioning of government troops in the area on February 8. The armed conflict, at press time, already escalated in the provinces of Sultan Kudarat, Maguindanao, South Cotabato, completing the four provinces, including North Cotabato, which share territories that are part of the marshland.
The National Economic Development Authority (NEDA) office in Central Mindanao, in the late 1900s, also did a Comprehensive Development Plan for the marshland and organized the Liguasan Marsh Development Council headed by Cotabato Gov. Emmanuel Piñol.
Shortly after the all-out war declared by deposed President Estrada in 2000, a fact-finding mission organized by the Federation of Reporters for Empowerment and Equality and the Mindanao Institute of Journalism, which are Mindanao-based media organizations, was told by local residents of their fear that the war could be intended to drive them away from the marsh so the development plan could be implemented unhampered.
The first of the every-three-year war that started in this municipality in 1997 was triggered by a reported MILF harassment against an oil exploration team of the National Power Corp.
The Front has been very vocal against the Marsh’s development plan claiming that it will not only displace the Bangsamoro people whose livelihood is very much dependent of the marsh’s resources, but may also totally kill all endangered species of plants, fishes, birds and other animals endemic only in the marsh.
Local Agriculture officials said in the fact-finding mission organized by the journalists that the marsh also serves as nesting place not only of the famous Philippine eagle but also of other rare birds.
Besides the MILF, two people’s organizations have already been organized to spearhead protest actions against the development plans in the marsh, which was earlier reported to have “unlimited” oil deposits. The latest that they did was a big rally at the Cotabato City Plaza in December last year, protesting the plan to build the Pulangi Dam in Pulangi River, a major tributary of the Rio Grande de Mindanao, the historic biggest and longest river on the island.
Mike Haron, spokesman for the Integrated Mindanaoans Association of Natives, said they are opposed to the construction of the Pulangi Dam because their study shows it would submerge 3,000 hectares of productive agricultural land and flood some 70,000 hectares covering portions of Pikit, Kabacan and Carmen towns of North Cotabato province and Pagalungan and Pagagawan towns of Maguindanao if it overflows.
Haron said that the dam will not serve “the main purpose because it will dry up the portion that will be needed for the oil drilling.”
Besides the Pulangi Dam, the development plan for Liguasan Marsh that was drafted by the NEDA-Central Mindanao also includes a fish cannery, a fish port and ecotourism. The marsh is the biggest source of freshwater fish in Mindanao and the rare species and wildlife offer “unlimited potentials for ecotourism.”
Haron says an international airport that would be built in a portion of Piñol’s hometown, Mlang, that is part of the marshland, is also among the plans. He said that a private organization conducted an exploration and concluded that the best source of mineral water could also be found within the 200,000-hectare marsh.
Sounding very kind to the military, whom he has been relating with in his peace advocacy, Layson considered the campaign against lawless elements as one of the legitimate reasons for the assault against the MILF position, but he was also convinced that the two other reasons, which are the development plan in the Liguasan Marsh and the need to pressure the MILF into signing the draft peace agreement with the government, are among the reasons for the war that already displaced some 70,000 in all the four provinces affected.
The peace advocates and the evacuees, whom Layson said have already “learned the art of evacuation,” said the war in Pikit “may stop tomorrow,” but no one can tell when it will erupt again, though they are confident that until the development plans are implemented, the war is yet to be over.
“By then, who will enjoy that so-called development if the people within the marshland will all be displaced? For whom is the development that they are talking about?” asked Haron.
PEACE ASSESSMENT MISSION
PEACE ASSESSMENT MISSION
15 – 16 February 2003
Rep. Mario J. Aguja of AKBAYAN
Jean Enriquez, National Anti-Poverty Commission Women Sectoral Council
Ronald Llamas, Akbayan Executive Committee
Marilou Diaz-Abaya, Film Director
Manuel Garduque, BALAY Rehabilitation Center
Atty. Suharto Ambolodto, Institute for Strategic Initiatives
This initial report contains the following:
1.Mission activities on the 15th and 16th of February
2.Main points / data from the briefings and inspections conducted by the Mission (partial, to be completed once notes and documents are consolidated)
3.Insights and recommendations
February 15, 2003
1.Briefing with Gen. Generoso Senga, Commander, 6th Infantry Division, Pikit, North Cotabato
2.Briefing with Pikit Mayor Bai Parida Malingko and DSWD Sec. Dinky Soliman on the status of the refugees and relief operations in the municipality of Pikit
3.Meeting with Fr. Bert Layson, parish priest of Pikit; Distribution of pediatric medicines by Marilou Diaz-Abaya to evacuees hosted by Immaculate Conception Parish (Pikit)
4.Briefing with ARMM DSWD Asst. Sec. Dombaen K. Kader on status of evacuees and relief operations in the entire ARMM.
February 16, 2003
1.Briefing with Gadzali Jaafar, MILF Vice-Chairman for Political Affairs
2.Briefing with Vice-Mayor Bebot Maglangit of Pagagawan municipality, North Cotabato
3. Inspection of evacuation camps in Pagagawan, Pagalungan, and Pikit municipalities
4.Meeting with ARMM DSWD Sec. Bainon G. Karon (Pagagawan municipality)
Main Points and data from briefings and inspections
Briefing with Gen. Generoso Senga, Commander, 6th Infantry Division
A. Chronology. Gen. Senga enumerated the following incidents that he cited as the basis for the AFP offensive on February 11, 2003:
· January 2003: the retreat of kidnap for ransom groups into MILF areas and towards the Liguasan Marsh, and to President Roxas
· February 6, 2003: announcement on radio by MILF spokesman Eid Kabalu that MILF forces are massing up in preparation for AFP forces; the AFP responds by massing up its own forces in the Central Mindanao area (Marines were also prepared to go to Jolo)
· February 9, 2003: Scout Ranger Team harassed by MILF elements in Sultan sa Barongis
· February 10, 2003: AFP engineers on the way to a road construction project are ambushed by MILF elements in Sarmiento, Matanog. 1 AFP killed, 8 wounded
· February 11, 2003, 6 AM: AFP troops were harassed again in Pikit and the 602 Brigade is deployed to neutralize and pursue lawless elements; other AFP units subsequently deployed
B. Nature and Conduct of Operations. Gen. Senga emphasized that current AFP operations are hot pursuit operations against criminal syndicates (mainly the Pentagon kidnapping gang) and other perpetrators of lawless violence, not an offensive against the MILF. However, since the MILF is impeding the operations, the AFP was left with no option but to neutralize interfering MILF forces as well.
When asked by Mission members regarding the number of MILF and Pentagon casualties, Gen. Senga replied that the AFP is not capable of distinguishing Pentagon members from MILF members. He alleged that Pentagon members mix with MILF cadres, rendering efforts at identification futile. He put MILF casualties at 137 dead as of February 15, 2003. Scope of operations span 3 provinces (North Cotabato, Sultan Kudarat, and Maguindanao), but only because conflict areas are in the borders of these three provinces.
He alleged that the MILF and criminal syndicates such as the Pentagon gang share proceeds from kidnapping activities and that the MILF uses such funds to purchase weapons and ammunitions.
When asked why the AFP was conducting police operations in pursuit of criminal groups, Gen. Senga explained that an Executive Order from President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo classified Southwestern Mindanao as being under the jurisdiction of the Department of National Defense (under Sec. Angelo Reyes) and Northeastern Mindanao as being under the Department of Interior and Local Government. Thus in Southwestern Mindanao, AFP is authorized to form joint task forces with the PNP to deal with criminality, lawless violence, terrorism and insurgency.
The objectives of the offensive, according to Gen. Senga, are as follows: i. deny criminal groups use of sanctuaries in Central Mindanao, ii. physically eliminate criminal groups, and iii. secure Buliok Complex, the entry point to Liguasan Marsh, as ordered by President Macapagal-Arroyo herself. He identified Buliok Complex as an MILF camp hosting criminal elements, a communications center, and a training ground for various criminal activities. Another indicator for them to stop operations is when there is “no more retaliation from the other end.”
According to Gen. Senga, AFP’s use of heavy artillery, such as Howitzers and OV10 planes, to pursue the Pentagon gang is necessary because of the entrenched positions of and the heavy ammunition used by the other side. He clarified that the military had specific and legitimate targets and was not bombing various sites indiscriminately.
C. Implications on the Peace Agreement. Gen. Senga repeatedly stressed that the military operations is not directed against MILF but against the Pentagon gang, whose capture is being impeded by MILF forces. He said that the ceasefire agreement does not authorize any criminal undertakings by any group or individuals, even if they are parties to the peace process.
When asked about the role of the Coordinating Committee for the Cessation of Hostilities (CCCH) in case of provocations/violations of by any of the two parties, Gen. Senga answered that the AFP cannot consult the CCCH while they are being harassed by the MILF and while they are conducting hot pursuit operations.
When asked about the role of local monitoring teams (LMTs) set up by the Joint Communiqué signed by GRP and MILF panels in 2001, Gen. Senga pointed out that such teams are not in place because they were organized in 2002.
Asked by the Mission for his recommendations towards the better enforcement and improvement of the Peace Agreement, Gen. Senga surfaced the need to de-mobilize firearms and armed forces; he likewise reiterated the need for MILF to surrender Pentagon members and “step aside” to enable the AFP to pursue such criminal elements as may be present in their territories. He also suggested a review of the ceasefire agreement.
D. On Displacement of Civilians and Relief Operations. Gen. Senga cited the arrival of AFP Task Force Kandili on February 16, 2003, a medical and dental mission for evacuees. He also enumerated AFP construction projects such as sanitary toilets and hand-pumps for evacuation centers.
Briefing with Pikit Mayor Bai Parida Malingko and DSWD Sec. Corazon Juliano-Soliman
As of February 15, 2003, 9:30 AM: Total number of evacuees located in Pikit is 39, 518 (refer to attached DSWD document no. 1). This is more than half the population of Pikit, which stands at around 60,000 people.
Rice supplies are good for 10 days (starting February 15, 2003) while viands are good for 5 days (as of February 15, 2003). Four children have died so far, from health problems.
Pikit has an efficient and systematic relief distribution system organized and run by the LGU, civic groups, and NGOs (Red Cross, CFSI, etc.), with the help of civilian volunteers.
They have no assessment of damages in properties yet. When asked if the AFP informs them of attacks and the timeframe of the war, Sec. Soliman said they are the ones who approach the AFP as the latter does not offer information. To her, the worst case scenario is one month of more skirmishes. Based on experience, the evacuees stay in the centers for more than a month after the war has subsided for fear of being caught in the crossfire. Thus, the food supply is certainly short.
Asked of the budget already spent for relief, Sec. Soliman said that the national government has released P2.3M. To include, provincial and local governments’ assistance, the relief has already cost us around P10M. However, only P300,000 has been released to the ARMM, since “it is an autonomous region and part of their empowerment is sourcing their own funds.”
When the Mission expressed apprehension of the peace process being jeopardized by the operations, Sec. Soliman asked why the Pentagon go to MILF territory. However, she said that both the AFP and the MILF should be accountable for the damages wrought by the war.
Meeting with Fr. Bert Layson of the Immaculate Conception Parish in Pikit
Fr. Bert houses evacuees and oversees the distribution of relief goods to them. He lamented that he sees the same faces of women and children. They are repeat-evacuees or “balik-bayan.” The people, he said, are tired of wars. After the Joint Communique was signed in 2001, he felt cheated and the people did not expect this war to happen.
He feels that while both the AFP and the MILF are accountable to the people, the government is in a high ground, it has the resources and should not have launched offensives despite said “harassments” or even the expressed goal of pursuing lawless elements.
Asked if he is still hopeful of the Peace Process, Fr. Bert said that one cannot give up. He, however, opined that the AFP is really after the MILF, and not said “lawless elements.”
Fr. Bert also narrated that they have just finished their stress management seminars and other rehabilitation programs, coming from the 2000 war. The people have barely healed themselves, and then this war started.
Briefing with ARMM DSWD Asst. Sec. Pombaen Kader
Asec. Kader revealed that evacuees are not confined to Pikit but are spread among various areas of ARMM and number 51, 104 persons as of February 16, 2003. (refer to DSWD document no. 2)
Some of these evacuees are housed in “core shelters” (small wood and bamboo structures) in Pagalungan and Pagagawan towns. Majority are in makeshift tents in Pikit, in school buildings across ARMM, warehouses, and others stay with relatives in other towns.
Food supply is problematic, and illness among children is starting to spread due to problems with sanitation and congestion. The makeshift tents do not provide adequate shelter from the elements since they are constructed only from canvas or discarded sacking material. Evacuees in these tents sleep directly on the ground, which can be really hot.
The evacuees started fleeing their communities from February 8, 2003 to February 10, 2003, due to massive military deployments in the areas, which they knew from experience were precursors to a major operation. (However, Balay reported that evacuation started since January 24, when army troops were sighted by the people.) While not all ARMM areas are conflict zones, they are recipients of those displaced from other municipalities and provinces.
Number of refugees:
Pikit: 39, 518
Other ARMM Areas: 51, 104
TOTAL (as of February 16) 90, 620
The Mission asked for the disaggregated data on women and children. While their data-recording is not yet organized as such, Asec. Kader noted from observation that more than 70% of the evacuees are women and children.
She narrated that the families left their corn harvests behind and many tell of their houses burnt down. As with other social workers, she lamented their rehabilitation programs for the war victims seemed to have gone to naught. The social workers are now working 24 hours a day, with meager resources.
The people feel that the government cheated them. And that it is after the natural gas in the area. Also, they say that the resources spent for bombs and artillery should have been allocated for their livelihood or to respond to the massive poverty in the region.
Briefing with Gadjali Jaafar, MILF Vice-Chair for Political Affairs and first Chair of MILF Peace Panel, 1997
Com. Jaafar accounted that during the latter part of 2002, there were already continuous military operations in Lanao del Norte, Lanao del Sur, and North Cotabato, allegedly to run after lawless elements. In Lanao del Norte, the AFP claimed that Abu Sayyaf members went to MILF areas.
Com. Jaafar repeatedly denied that the MILF harbors elements of the Abu Sayyaf or Pentagon gangs, or other criminal organizations in their areas. He stressed that MILF principles and objectives differ vastly from such gangs, and that theirs is a legitimate revolutionary organization. He said that there are military assets that gain financially from giving unverified information about the whereabouts of the gangs.
He refuted Gen. Senga’s figures regarding the death toll on the side of the MILF. Gen. Senga had put it at 137, while Com. Jaafar quoted a figure of 47, all of whom, he emphasized, were legitimate members of MILF. He challenged the AFP to categorically identify any of the dead rebels as being Pentagon members who are the subjects of arrest warrants issued by the PNP.
Com. Jaafar cited provisions in the Joint Communiqué of 2001 providing for the creation of ad hoc Joint Action Groups consisting of AFP and MILF forces to pursue and neutralize criminal and lawless groups. He stressed that this provision was never implemented. He also said that they instructed their Peace Panel and CCCH to talk to their counterparts in the government, but their letter did not get a reply.
Asked of their agreement with the GRP to respond to the problems of lawless elements, the MILF leader said that they have been asking for the warrants of arrests against said Pentagon gang members, but they were not given any.
Com. Jaafar described Buliok camp as an agricultural area, a community with madrasahs and other facilities, not a communication or training center of the MILF or of any criminal group.
About the peace talk invitation that they supposedly snubbed, the MILF leader said that the invitation by Sec. Jesus Dureza was verbal. The agreement that any invitation should be put in writing because of the delicateness of the situation.
Com. Jaafar reiterated the willingness of the MILF to conform to the peace agreement and its interest to engage in further negotiations. He said, however, that the requisite for such would be the AFP’s disengagement from current operations and the immediate halt to all military offensives in Central Mindanao.
He added that there are skeptical MILF leaders that blame them for believing the government, who stressed “from the beginning that the GRP is insincere.” He said that they are finding it difficult to convince others of the continuing viability of the Peace Process, but that they will do their best.
Still, Com. Jaafar called for the implementation of the agreements and reiterated the need for the government to take confeidence-building measures.
Inspection of Evacuation camps in Pagagawan, Pagalungan, and Pikit municipalities (video clips available)
Meeting with ARMM DSWD Sec. Bainon G. Karon
Sec. Karon stated that the budgetary allocation from the national government for relief and rehab operations in ARMM is only Php 300, 000. This, she pointed out, is certainly a miniscule amount for assisting more than 50, 000 refugees. The annual national budget for disaster management is Php 100 Million).
She revealed that current evacuees are “repeat evacuees,” having been previously displaced in the April 2000 all-out war under Pres. Estrada, and again in November 2001. She stressed that in this scenario, rehabilitation efforts are rendered almost useless because the traumas are inflicted consecutively, with short gaps in between.
The date posted here is due to our website rebuild, it does not reflect the original date this article was posted. This article was originally posted in Yonip on Feb 27thth 2003