Senators question MILF absence in SAF hearing

MANILA, Philippines – Senate President Franklin Drilon and his colleagues questioned the absence of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in the Senate inquiry into the Mamasapano clash.

There was no member of the MILF leadership in the Senate hearing on Monday, February 9, prompting senators to again express concern about the former rebel group’s supposed lack of sincerity in the peace process with the government.

Rasid Ladiasan appeared before the Senate public order committee as chairperson of the MILF Coordinating Committee on the Cessation of Hostilities (CCCH), the body tasked to maintain the ceasefire between the government and the MILF. 

Ladiasan said MILF chief negotiator Mohagher Iqbal told him on Sunday, February 8, to answer questions on behalf of the MILF but senators pointed out that he was a mere “messenger” of the group.

“Can we ask Mr Iqbal to honor this committee with his appearance” Drilon asked. “If the Secretary of the Interior and Local Government, the [military] high-ranking officials, [Defense] Secretary Gazmin are here, can we have the honor of having Mr Iqbal present?”

Senate Majority Leader Alan Peter Cayetano agreed and asked the MILF to submit at least a partial report into the clash by Tuesday. Cayetano is one of two senators who withdrew authorship of the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) that creates an expanded region in Muslim Mindanao under a deal the government and the MILF signed last year.

“If peace is really their objective and they want to save this agreement, they must have full cooperation because they are the ones on the ground, they must have done [their investigation] faster,” Cayetano said.

Responding to senators, Ladiasan said that the MILF has not yet finished its own investigation into the January 25 clash that killed 44 elite cops, at least 17 MILF members and some civilians.

“They emphasized that we are both into coming out with the truth, and [accounting] for what is needed,” Ladiasan said.

Cayetano questioned this, pointing out that the Philippine National Police (PNP), and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) already submitted their findings.

He accused the MILF of “flip-flopping” in its media statements of where Malaysian terrorist Zulkifli bin Hir or Marwan was, and whether or not the MILF was “fighting” its breakaway group Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF). The Special Action Forces (SAF) operation was meant to arrest or kill Marwan.

“I am uncomfortable that the PNP and the AFP submitted its report but the MI has not …. The sooner they submit a factual report, the more not only credibility [they will have], and we avoid the idea of a cover-up and navigate the reports here to show the peace process should continue,” Cayetano said.

The Mamasapano encounter threatens to derail the peace process between the government and the MILF after 17 years of negotiations. It is one of the biggest controversies to hit the Aquino administration.

‘MILF knew they were fighting govt’

Senator Francis Escudero asked Ladiasan why the MILF continued fighting the SAF troopers if the group knew early on that they were engaging government forces.

Based on the report of the peace panels, Ladiasan sent a text message to his government counterpart at 6:38 am on the day of the encounter that a firefight erupted between “the AFP” and the MILF in Tukanalipao, Maguindanao.

Escudero said, “So at 6:30 am, your forces knew that the ones they were engaging were government troops, whether it was police or the military?”

Ladiasan answered in the affirmative. Escudero then asked why it supposedly took 6 to 7 hours for the MILF to order its forces to stop fighting.

“They only stopped firing when everyone was already dead,” Escudero said.

Ladiasan responded that the instruction of the MILF leadership based in Camp Darapanan in Sultan Kudarat, Maguindanao was to enforce a ceasefire but this became difficult because of the situation on the ground, which he described as “self-defense and a battle for survival.”

“That was really our intention, to separate [the forces] and impose a ceasefire but the coordination was a problem. First, we received no prior coordination but still, we wanted to coordinate our efforts to effect a ceasefire. We called the ground commanders, but they said we were the ones first fired upon. Two were hit and one died from their troops in Tukanalipao,” Ladiasan said.

Ladiasan added that ceasefire mechanisms eventually worked but the CCCH team had difficulty reaching the site of the clash.

“We do not want what happened. No one would want that to happen. Our side also suffered casualties and many were wounded,” said the MILF CCCH chair. 

Drilon also asked Ladiasan: “You are saying there was also a request for ceasefire on your end but you could not implement it?”

“To that effect, that happened," Ladiasan said. "But because of the difficult situation on the ground, close encounter, and the [MILF] commanders in the area said the ones they were fighting were also skilled. The MILF commanders said they had a hard time battling them."

‘Aquino cannot bind Congress’

In the exchange with Ladiasan, Cayetano cited a December 29, 2014 letter from MILF chairman Al Haj Murad Ebrahim to the House of Representatives.

Cayetano read a paragraph from the letter: “…. as such the MILF negotiated its peace agreement with the understanding it was negotiating with the totality of the Philippine government or the ‘whole government’ especially since the commander in chief powers of the president allow him to bind the whole government including its different branches.”

A lawyer, Cayetano said this was a “misunderstanding” of the president’s power.

“The President cannot bind the Supreme Court or Congress …. If we want to get to the bottom of this, the leadership of the MILF should understand that Congress is not bound by the commander in chief powers of the President as far as the legislative process is concerned, or legislation for the BBL,” Cayetano said. Rappler.com