MILF skips Senate hearing on Mamasapano anew

MANILA, Philippines – The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) again skipped the Senate inquiry into the Mamasapano clash, saying it is still “a revolutionary organization.”

MILF chief negotiator Mohagher Iqbal sent a letter to the Senate public order committee, which Senator Ferdinand Marcos Jr described as “alarming” in relation to the government’s peace negotiations with the MILF. The MILF’s continued absence also prompted more questions about its commitment to the peace talks.

In his letter to Senator Grace Poe, Iqbal said that he cannot attend the hearing until the MILF completes its own investigation into the deadly January 25 encounter between elite cops, the MILF, and other rebels.

"Please bear with us as we engage the institution of the Philippine Senate officially for the first time. The MILF is a revolutionary organization. While we may have signed a peace agreement with the Philippine Government after 18 years of intermittent war and negotiations, that peace agreement has yet to be implemented. Until the peace agreement is fully implemented, we will remain to be a revolutionary organization," Iqbal said. 

The statement prompted a strong reaction from Marcos, who, as chairperson of the Senate local government committee, is leading the Senate hearings into the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL). The bill aims to create an expanded autonomous region in Muslim Mindanao, as part of a deal the government and the MILF signed last year after 17 years of negotiations. 

Marcos said Iqbal’s statement was “in direct contradiction” with the conditions the peace panels described in the BBL hearings he conducted in Manila and Mindanao.

“Is it Mr Iqbal’s understanding that we are still at war? That the MILF is still a revolutionary organization until a peace agreement is completed,” Marcos said. “We were already told the decommissioning began. This is not consistent with that. This might sound severe but can we now assume that we’re still at war?”

“This is an alarming, alarming development that we have returned to war with the MILF. I hope the MILF explains this,” Marcos added.

Rashid Ladiasan, the chairperson of the MILF Coordinating Committee on the Cessation of Hostilities (CCCH), said he was not in a position to answer Marcos’ questions. The CCCH is the body tasked to maintain the ceasefire between the government and the MILF.

Government peace panel chairperson Miriam Coronel Ferrer said Iqbal’s letter must be seen “in the context of the whole peace process.” Ferrer said the “decommissioning” or process where the MILF lays down its arms is part of a roadmap timed to come after the passage of the BBL.

“We are not at war with them. We have a ceasefire, but it was broken on January 25, the matter that is being investigated now,” she said.

Iqbal also pointed this out in his letter: “The MILF never wanted that unfortunate incident on January 25 in Mamasapano, Maguindanao to happen. This is first time since 2011 that fighting erupted between government and MILF forces.”

The Senate is investigating the operation to arrest top terrorists in Mamasapano, Maguindanao. The incident cost the lives of 44 members of the police Special Action Force (SAF), and at least 17 MILF members – a toll the MILF blames on the lack of coordination with the group.

The government and the MILF agreed in 2002 on a mechanism to arrest criminals in MILF areas like Mamasapano. The Ad Hoc Joint Action Group or AHJAG is the coordinating body for law enforcement operations against criminals. Yet the Special Action Force (SAF) operation was not coordinated with the AHJAG.

Where are Usman, SAF arms?

Iqbal said the MILF Central Committee agreed to send him to the Senate probe but only after it finishes its inquiry, and in executive session or behind closed doors.

Senator Grace Poe, Senate President Franklin Drilon, and Ferrer all said that the MILF must be present in the hearing.

“I agree. It is very important that the MILF top leadership be here. That demonstrates good faith. Actions speak louder than words,” said Ferrer.

Poe told Ferrer, “You can’t blame the public and some of the members who feel the peace talks are preventing some of our operations to take place and stand our ground.”

Drilon pressed Ladiasan, the MILF representative, on Iqbal's commitment that the MILF will return the firearms of the SAF. He asked Ladiasan about reports that the SAF equipment is already being sold.

Ladiasan responded: “We also heard of that, but we cannot confirm or say anything. Yes, we are looking into that.” 

Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas II said the government has a list of the equipment and kits issued to the SAF personnel, which can be used to check the items the MILF promised to return.

Drilon also asked Ladiasan about President Benigno Aquino’s call to the MILF to surrender Filipino terrorist Abdul Basit Usman, who escaped from the encounter.

“The President has appealed to your group, to help government or at least surrender Usman as part of the confidence-building process. We in Congress already find difficulty in passing the BBL because of this incident. Among those critical to rebuild confidence between government and the MILF is the matter of surrender of Usman and the return of the equipment,” he said.

Drilon said the MILF must do more to help restore faith in the peace process to ensure the passage of the BBL.  

“I hope you can deliver this to the MILF hierarchy. We need to rebuild trust between the two parties. We can’t do this alone. You must cooperate.” 

Iqbal's letter

Below is the full text of Iqbal's letter, dated February 9, to Senator Poe's committee:

09 February 2015

Sen. Grace Poe
Chairperson
Committee on Public Order and Dangerous Drugs
Senate of the Philippines

Dear Senator Poe:

We thank you for your Committee’s kind invitation for us to attend the joint public hearings of the Committee on Public Order and Dangerous Drugs and Peace, Unification and Reconciliation on P.S. Res. 1133, 1134 and 1135 – all relating to the incident which happened at Mamasapano, Maguindanao on January 25, 2015. Please be assured that the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) is fully committed as the Senate in the search for truth and justice.

Please bear with us as we engage the institution of the Philippine Senate officially for the first time. The MILF is a revolutionary organization. While we may have signed a peace agreement with the Philippine Government after 18 years of intermittent war and negotiations, that peace agreement has yet to be implemented. Until the peace agreement is fully implemented, we will remain to be a revolutionary organization.

Accordingly, the Central Committee of the MILF has accepted your Committee’s invitation and has designated me to appear in its behalf. However, the decision has stressed that that appearance will take place after the MILF Special Investigation Commission (SIC) comes out with its Findings which will be the basis of my statements to the relevant Committees of the Senate. Further, the MILF also requests that my appearance should be in an executive session.

I take this opportunity to inform your Honor that the MILF has decided to return the firearms and any retrievable personal effects of the fallen SAF-PNP in deference to the peace process and the recognition of the MILF that it never wanted that unfortunate incident on January 25 in Mamasapano, Maguindanao to happen. This was the first time since 2011 that fighting erupted between government and MILF forces.

Perhaps, in a couple of days, the MILF will be able to finish the internal process of accounting of the materials to pave the way for their return.

The Chair of the MILF’s Committee on Cessation of Hostilities (CCCH), Mr. Rasid Ladiasan, will again represent the MILF. He would be accompanied by Atty. Raissa Jajurie, a member of the Bangsamoro Transition Commission, and Mr. Butch Panegel, who is also a member of the CCCH. 

Again, I would like to apologize for my inability to attend your Committee’s hearing tomorrow for reasons aforecited.

Thank you very much.

(sgd)

MOHAGHER IQBAL

Chairman

Bangsamoro Transition Authority

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