MILF ‘communities’
COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva1 () - August 27, 2008 - 12:00am

Amid the full-blown hostilities in Central Mindanao between government forces and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front was a rather sorry admission on the part of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Chief-of-Staff Gen. Alexander Yano that the military could launch offensive operations only as much as to drive away the armed MILF rebels out of their own “communities.”

Yano confessed to this dilemma on how to wage the military offensive against renegade MILF rebels who live in these “communities” with their respective families and comrades-in-arms. Yano was candid enough to cite  it as the reason why they cannot go hammer and tongs against those MILF criminals who attacked and burned houses and buildings in North Cotabato, Lanao del Norte and Sarangani. They live among non-combatants who become human shields to these rogue MILF elements in these “communities”.

On a positive note, Yano clarified that these MILF “communities” are no longer the fortified camps they used to have in the past. The AFP chief was obviously referring to the 46 MILF “camps” that were dismantled during the “all out war” policy declared by deposed President Joseph Estrada following the repeated atrocities perpetrated by the MILF rebels during those times even while supposedly engaged in peace talks with the government.

Among these 46 major and minor camps of the MILF was called Camp Abubakar, bounded by the towns of Matanog, Buldon and Barira towns between the boundaries of Lanao del Sur and Maguindanao. The MILF lorded it over these towns as they took control over the 145-km stretch of Narciso Ramos Highway, the road network that leads to Camp Abubakar. MILF rebels naturally had a heyday in collecting tolls and other extortion activities. It was a road project constructed and inaugurated in 1997 by former President Fidel Ramos who named it after his late father who was once a Philippine ambassador to Taiwan.

Government forces were able to get back jurisdiction over Camp Abubakar after several months of bloody fighting that started in April 2000. The Marines took control of the highway and Camp Abubakar fell to government hands on July 9, 2000 when they hoisted the Philippine flag in ceremonies attended by Estrada himself. The victory celebration struck though, a sore note when some over-eager supporters of Estrada brought “lechon” (roasted pig) that enraged our more law-abiding and peaceful Muslim brothers to cry foul. It is now a “zone of peace” and guarded by 603rd Brigade Army. Then MILF chairman Hashim Salamat fled to Malaysia where he took sanctuary.

When President Arroyo took over the government from Estrada in January 2001, her administration decided to revive the peace talks with the MILF. Salamat returned and settled back in their next biggest camp called Buliok complex in Pagalungan in North Cotabato. Towards late 2002, rogue elements of the MILF gave refuge to Pentagon kidnap-for-ransom bandits. Hostilities erupted between government forces and the MILF.  The Marines overran Buliok and it became a “zone of peace.” Former North Cotabato Gov. Manny Piñol even donated farm tractors to convince the MILF to engage in productive activities like farming instead of building camps. 

While supposedly these MILF “camps” were all dismantled, the MILF dispersed into “communities.” As of latest check by the ground commanders, Yano disclosed, they have so far driven out the MILF attackers from 15 Muslim rebel “communities” that have served as guerilla combat support areas in these three provinces. He said the government offensive “inflicted heavy casualties” on the groups led by MILF commanders Ameril Umbra Kato and Abdurahman Macapaar alias Commander Bravo. The two renegade MILF commanders went on a rampage after the Supreme Court stopped the government from signing  the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD) in Kuala Lumpur on  Aug. 5.

What was bothersome was the sight of now MILF chairman Al Haj-Murad (who took over from Salamat after the latter’s demise in 2003) who made a display of defiance when he called a press conference last Saturday. Murad invited foreign and local media to the press conference. It was not even clandestine but was held at what the MILF calls as Camp Darapanan in Sultan Kudarat. MILF vice chairman Gadhali Jaafar and Mohaqher Iqbal (who heads the MILF panel holding peace talks with the government) were also present there.

As I gathered from the news dispatches that came out from the press conference of the MILF chieftain, Murad came heavily guarded with a battalion size of MILF rebels in a show of force. MILF rebels were in full military camouflage uniforms and armed with M-14 arms while others held the latest model of M-16 armalite Bushmaster.

Yet I was told Camp Darapanan is located about less than 5 kms. away from the camp of the16th Army Fire and Artillery Battalion of the AFP. It is near the regional center of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.  Murad does not stay there but he goes in and out of there. Camp Darapanan, I learned, is situated in a plateau and surrounded by hills. MILF rebels built offices and reception areas there where they receive and hold meetings with government officials, foreign visitors, and other guests whose safety are guaranteed and would not be molested.

While MILF “communities” have become an accepted term, the military could not also make heads or tails of the people who were being temporarily sheltered in evacuation centers. They notice that during daytime, only women folk, little children and the elderly fill the evacuation centers. They suspect that the few men and teenagers who turn up at the evacuation centers are actually MILF rebels who are “evacuees by day” and return to being MILF rebels by night.

In the meantime, these MILF “communities” should enjoy the benefits from the projects and programs funded by the Bangsamoro Development Agency (BDA). The BDA is not an agency of the government but is actually run by the MILF purportedly as a socio-economic body to assist these “communities” of the MILF. With the display of so much firepower by MILF rebels, questions were raised if these were acquired through funds from BDA? Are these peace dividends for these MILF “communities” that actually end up as war funds?                                     

ABUBAKAR MILF PLACE PLACENAME PLACETYPE
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