Aquino pact restores, strengthens MILF camps

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The clear and imminent danger to the Republic emerging from the “Annex on Normalization” President Aquino’s negotiators agreed to with the insurgent Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) is in its official document’s Section J, innocuously titled “Confidence-Building Measures.” Its first paragraph reads:

“Upon the signing of this Annex on Normalization and as a gesture of good will, the two parties shall constitute joint task forces for the following previously acknowledged MILF camps:

a. Camp Abubakar as-Siddique in Maguindanao

b. Camp Bilal in Lanao del Norte and Lanao del Sur

c. Camo Omar ibn al-Khattab in Maguindanao

d. Camp Rajamuda in North Cotabato and Maguindanao

e. Camp Badre in Maguindanao

f. Camp Busrah Somiorang in Lanao del Sur,

The task forces will assess the needs, plan appropriate programs, and undertake the necessary measures to transform these areas into peaceful and productive communities.”

President Estrada inspecting captured MILF rocket-propelled grenades in Camp Abubakar in July 2000. At extreme left is then AFP chief of staff Gen. Angelo Reyes. Aquino’s pacts with the MILF could hand the camp back to the Islamic insurgents.

President Estrada inspecting captured MILF rocket-propelled grenades in Camp Abubakar in July 2000. At extreme left is then AFP chief of staff Gen. Angelo Reyes. Aquino’s pacts with the MILF could hand the camp back to the Islamic insurgents.

But these had ceased to be MILF camps in July 2000, when government troops overran them in a campaign that lasted nearly four months.

Exasperated over the peace talks then and with MILF continuing its attacks on the military, then President Joseph Estrada mobilized a force of 15,000 army and marine troopers to invade these camps at a cost of over 200 MILF fighters and government troops killed.

I would learn later, poring over documents when I was an official in Malacañang, that it cost of over P500 million, using up not only most of Estrada’s confidential funds but also money from the Presidential Social Fund which had been designed for social projects. I even suspect that Estrada probably was pressured to illegally acquire money from jueteng operators and from stock-market illegal manipulations to finance or make up for the money used in his attack on MILF camps.

All that steep cost in lives and money, only to be reversed by Aquino now.

“Acknowledged MILF camps”
What did the Annex refer to when it described these as “previously acknowledged MILF camps”?

These were “acknowledged” as such in February 1999 by then chief government negotiator former Lt. Gen. Orlando Soriano as part of the 1997 “Implementing Administrative Guidelines of the GRP-MILF Agreement on the General Cessation of Hostilities.” But government recognized these as MILF strongholds only for the duration of the peace talks.

But the peace talks broke down in late 1999, and then several months later, Estrada launched his four-month all-out war against the MILF. He angrily declared he did not authorize Soriano to agree to recognize those camps, since there cannot be “MILF territory” in “Philippine territory.”

Contrary to expectations that the MILF would defend Camp Abubakar—the MILF’s biggest— to the last man, since it had been its headquarters for two decades and where its chairman Sheik Hassim Salamat lived, Estrada’s troops—then led by Chief of Staff Angelo Reyes—conquered it in a month’s time, after pounding the stronghold for two weeks with bombs dropped by its OV-10 attack helicopters and with shells by the army’s heaviest artillery.

Several of the other MILF camps listed in the Annex were actually merely Camp Abubakar’s satellite camps, making up its perimeter defense, which the Marines one by one overrun on their way to the MILF headquarters. Camp Omar for instance is a stronghold a visitor to Abubakar first passes to be cleared for entry.

The stress of the battle, or his difficult flight through mountainous terrain, took a toll on the MILF’s head Salamat’s health. He became sickly since then and died of a heart attack in 2003.
 
Camp Abubakar
I was the first journalist to visit Camp Abubakar and to interview Salamat in 1996. It is a vast 15,00 hectare camp on a plateau in Maguindanao covering 12 towns. I would understand the stress place on Salamat’s health when he was forced to evacuate such an idyllic place as Abubakar.

On July 11, 2000, in a quintessential demonstration of his braggadocio and propaganda skill, Estrada himself went to the conquered camp to raise the Philippine flag. Estrada enraged Muslims everywhere when after raising the flag he celebrated his victory with a feast with the soldiers in which beer and lechon were served, both banned in the Muslim faith.

Only one who has visited Camp Abubakar and other MILF camps will realize as fiction what our negotiators have wholeheartedly accepted as fact — that these camps could be transformed into peaceful and productive communities. This is simply because few civilians would want to live in these remote areas, unless they are mountain tribesmen who love this environment and bandits or insurgent groups who love the safety it gives them. The terrain in these areas is not ideal for rice farms, the main crop, next to coconuts, in the region.

The sites of these camps were precisely chosen because of their geographical features as strongholds for bandits and rebels. Its picturesque landscape of waterfalls, streams and small forests make up its military advantage: these features would slow-down or even stop tanks and armored personnel carriers.

Camp Rajah Muda, which was the MILF’s second biggest camp, is in the midst of the vast Liguasan Marsh in Pikit, North Cotabato, so difficult to reach that it has traditionally been the safe haven for kidnapping and other well-armed gangs. In fact Umbra Kato, who heads an MILF breakaway group against the peace talks, still uses this camp as his refuge from our military’s efforts to capture him.

The Annex’s claims that the listed camps would be transformed into “peaceful and productive” communities may sound like a noble aim. In reality, only the MILF and its fighters’ families would want to live there. The MILF has always used “peace” to mean what its slogan, which was prominently displayed at the entrance of Camp Abubakar when they still had it: “If you want peace, prepare for war.”

The Annex has no provisions requiring the MILF to lay down their arms if they return and live in these “camps.”

MILF lost these camps
These camps no longer really exist as MILF camps since Estrada’s troops drove out the MILF in fierce fighting in June and July in 2000. President Gloria Macapagal officially named camp Abubakar Camp Iranun in 2005, since Moros in the area are mostly Iranun Moro tribe people who aren’t big supporters of the MILF. It has become the headquarters of the Army’s 603rd Brigade of the Army’s 6th (“Kampilan”) Division, the force together with the Philippine Marines that drove out the MILF out of Camp Abubakar.

Now the Aquino government is recognizing these six strategic areas as “MILF camps”? Will the Army’s 603rd Brigade as well other military detachments in the conquered camps be asked to leave so it could be transformed into productive communities under the protection of the MILF?

Most of the agreements in the “Annex on Normalization” — even the organization of a Bangsamoro police — would be implemented when the Bangsamoro “entity” is created, which I doubt would happen since this requires the Supreme Court’s decision as to its constitutionality, the enactment of a law by the Congress, a referendum by people in the areas covered by the substate, and even amendments to the constitution.

Not so for the agreement on the MILF strongholds. These would be recognized as MILF camps, and measures undertaken to transform them into “productive communities” “upon the signing of this Annex on Normalization and as a gesture of good will.”

Aquino’s spokespersons and his negotiators will of course deny that the Annex on Normalization provides for the creation of a MILF-controlled Bangsamoro Police and the recognition of and restoration of the six MILF camps.

Perhaps they simply didn’t understand the import of provisions they agreed to. They will claim that the agreement refers only to the communities that are in the camps, but not to these as camps of the MILF.

But why were these referred to using the MILF’s official names for them—“Camp Abubakar as-Siddique, Camp Omar ibn al-Kahttab “ etc.—and described as “acknowledged MILF camps”? Why weren’t they referred to as “former MILF camps that had been captured by the GPH’s military in 2000″?

The silence on these issues by the MILF will be deafening. Perhaps they will be too busy laughing at our negotiating panel’s gullibility to comment.