MILF PROPOSES INTERNATTIONAL PEACEKEEPERS FOR MINDANAO

Manila, March 17, 2003 -- The largest Muslim civil society movement in the troubled southern Philippines called for international peacekeepers to enforce a ceasefire between government troops and Muslim rebels.

The call came as the government moved to seek a foreign team from the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) to monitor the ceasefire agreement signed between Manila and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in 2001.

The agreement was shattered last month when the Philippine military attacked a key MILF enclave to flush out alleged kidnap, terrorist and other lawless elements sheltered by the rebel group.

The offensive led to heavy fighting which unconfirmed reports said left more than 400 dead, mostly MILF forces.

"Having just foreign monitoring teams will not work if there are no ground troops with the capacity to stop any violation of the ceasefire," Abhoud Syed Lingga, the chairman of the Bangsamoro People's Consultative Assembly, told AFP.

The ground forces could be from the United Nations or the OIC, he said.

"You need someone in the middle to enforce strictly the ceasefire. If not, you will continue to have this cycle of ceasefire and war, ceasefire and war and bloodshed and deaths," said Lingga, who also heads the Institute of Bangsamoro Studies based in southern Cotabato city.

Foreign Secretary Blas Ople met Manila-based envoys of OIC member countries last week to discuss the possibility of allowing an OIC team, perhaps led by Malaysia, to enforce the ceasefire.

Predominantly Muslim Malaysia and Libya acted as mediators of the peace talks between Manila and the MILF before the recent round of fighting.

President Gloria Arroyo said Monday "the government will not stop its quest for peace but neither will it allow any group to disturb the peace in Mindanao."

The huge Mindanao island is in the southern third of the largely Christian Philippines and from where the MILF has waged a campaign to set up an Islamic state for the past 25 years.

The leaders of the MILF, the largest Muslim separatist group in the Philippines, have been charged with a deadly blast at the southern Davao city airport on March 4 which killed 21 people and injured more 150 others.

Lingga said if OIC were allowed to monitor the ceasefire in the south without backing from ground troops, it would be "ineffective."

"We had a situation in 1978 when the OIC also failed to enforce a ceasefire with just monitoring teams," he said, referring to fighting between the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and troops of the government of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos.

The MNLF, the biggest Muslim separatist force at that time, subsequently signed a Libyan-brokered peace agreement with the government in 1996. The MILF is a splinter of the MNLF.

Lingga also said the government should hold a referendum in Muslim-majority areas in the south as part of finding a long-term solution to the bloody Muslim separatist problem.

"To bring about a lasting and peaceful solution to this problem, a referendum should be held and Muslims should be asked whether they want to retain the autonomous relationship with the national government or have a federated relationship with the government or go for full independence," he said.

"To be free and very objective and acceptable by the people, I think such a referendum should be supervised by the UN so that whatever will be the result, it will be implemented," Lingga said.

The government has said in the past that a referendum to determine whether the Muslims would be allowed to secede would be a violation of the constitution.

Most of the Muslim areas in the south are currently administered by the office of the Autonomous Region for Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) under the supervision of the national government.


Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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