ERAP ASKS CONGRESS FOR SPECIAL POWERS FOR MINDANAO
Malacanang, July 24, 2000 - As he prepares to win the peace in Mindanao, President Joseph "Erap" Ejercito Estrada asked Congress Monday to grant him the emergency powers he needs to fast-track the development of the island.
In his State of the Nation Address (SONA), the President said the development of Mindanao is part of his four-point strategy in resolving the "Mindanao Question."
"To move both the peace process and the development of Mindanao forward faster, I urge Congress to pass the bill amending the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) organic act and the bill granting special powers to enable the fast-track development of Mindanao," he said.
Mr. Estrada reminded Congress that while it has passed a number of urgent administration measures, its work is far from over, and that it still has a debt to pay.
He urged Congress to also pass the power sector restructuring bill, the new Central Bank Act, the Comprehensive Solid Waste Management Act, the bureaucracy reengineering act, anti-racketeering act, and amendments to the Omnibus Investment Code.
The President bared a four-point strategy to deal with the Mindanao problem, following the end of the conflict with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
"Now that we have won the war, it is time to win the peace. Towards this end, the government has adopted a four-point strategy in approaching the Mindanao question from here on," he said.
"The first is to restore and maintain peace in Mindanao, because without peace, there can be no development. The second is to develop Mindanao – because without development, there can be no peace. The third is to continue seeking peace talks with the MILF within the framework of the Constitution – because a peace agreed upon in good faith is preferable to a peace enforced by force of arms the President said.
The fourth, according to the President, is to continue with the implementation of the peace agreement between the government and the Moro National Liberation Front, because "that is our commitment to our countrymen and to the international community.
The President also reiterated his earlier demands for the MILF before agreeing to resume peace talks.
He said the MILF must drop its weapons because outside of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the Philippine National Police (PNP), "no group whatsoever has any right to maintain an armed force or military camps within the sovereign territory of the Republic."
"We do not ask that you respect and recognize the sovereignty of the Republic. We demand that you do," he said.
The President also gave the MILF an unsolicited advice – that secession in the Philippines is an impossible dream.
He likewise reminded the MILF that it is neither the sole occupant nor ever the majority in the lands it wishes to carve out or convert into its own state.
"There are whole Filipino populations in Mindanao – Muslims, Christians and Lumad – who do not want their territories and their residences disturbed. Not even the majority of the Muslim population shares your separatist views nor the violent means you employ to attain them. The overriding passion of the people of Mindanao is for peace," he told the MILF.
Mr. Estrada added that the people will simply not stand for the dismemberment of the country, as all of the Philippines belongs to all Filipinos. "No part of it belongs to any particular group," he said.
Even the international community as a whole will neither support nor sympathize with secession, he said, as he recalled the statement of the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) last month.
Citing parts of the statement, the President said the OIC urged Muslim minorities in non-member states "to contribute effectively to the progress of the countries they live in and to respect their sovereignty and laws."
The President also defended his decision to overrun the MILF camps in the past few months.
"We cannot negotiate over secession. The sovereignty and the integrity of the Republic are not available for compromise or trade, not even for the sake of peace. Any peace won by bartering any position of our sovereignty is an immoral peace," he said.
The President said the government remains committed to convert Mindanao into the main food basket of the Philippines, into an agricultural paradise, and into a booming manufacturing base.
Camp Abubakar itself will be developed into a special economic zone, he said.
The President noted that the government has been providing full development support for Mindanao since 1996, when it poured in more than P32 billion for socio-economic development programs into the Special Zone of Peace and Development (SZOPAD) comprising 14 provinces.
"Let us not forget that Mindanao is an integral, inseparable and organic part of the Philippines. It has been so for the past four and a half centuries. It is so today. It will be so forever," he said.
The President also stressed that the government remains ready to neutralize any attempt by the MILF to "amputate" the southern parts of the country.
He said the MILF had been winning their war of territorial encroachment "simply because the previous government refused to fight, pretending that it wasn’t happening."
Before he took over, he said, the MILF had already occupied and hoisted their flag over large territories in Mindanao, in at least 46 camps, under the nose of the preceding administration, "which was either naïve enough to tolerate them or too timid to stop them."
"In contrast, my government was decisive enough to expel them. As President, I could not just stand by while the rebels ate up more and more of the country’s territory they were not elected to govern. When I took office, I swore to preserve and defend the Constitution. It was my solemn duty under that Constitution to repel the armed rebellion and to defend the sovereignty and integrity of the Republic," he said.
The President also said the MILF took advantage of the 1997 ceasefire to commit at least 227 violations, including the kidnapping of Fr. Luciano Benedetti in September 1998, occupying and setting on fire of the municipal hall of Talayan, Maguindanao; the takeover of the Kauswagan Municipal Hall; the bombing of the Lady Of Mediatrix boat at Ozamis City; and the takeover of the Narciso Ramos Highway.
By doing so, he said, they inflicted severe damage on the country’s image abroad, and scared much-needed investments away – and forced the government to take an armed response.
"An armed rebellion demanded an armed response. The sitting duck strategy has never been known to work well – for the duck," the President said.
He also said abstention from military action would have been tantamount to political abdication. "In effect, we did not choose the military option. It was forced upon us. But we used it, and succeeded," he said.
The President also reassured the international community that his administration will continue to do everything reasonable to obtain the safe release of the Jolo hostages.
He said that while he was happy that some hostages have been released as he gave the assurance that the government will do everything reasonable to obtain the release of the remaining hostages "as soon as possible".
The President also reassured residents of Mindanao that his administration is not fighting a religious war, but is only going after criminals and terrorists regardless of religion.
Contrary to rebel propaganda, he said, the government’s fight is not against Muslims, as "they are all our brothers." "Our fight is against rebels and other outlaws, regardless of their religion," he said.
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