(BULLETIN) By Edd K. Usman  - Foreign ministers of the Organization of Islamic Conference, composed of 57 Islamic nations, warmly applauded the success of Philippines' peace agreement with the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) in 1996 which was reported to the body by Indonesian Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda.

Minister Wirajuda, who chairs the OIC's Committee of the Eight that deals with the Muslim problem of the Southern Philippines, said the Philippine government has substantially complied with its undertakings under Phase 1 of the GRP-MNLF final peace agreement of 1996.

The peace agreement has two phases: Phase 1 deals mainly with political and military issues while Phase 2 focuses on socioeconomic packages for former MNLF members.

Foreign Affairs Secretary Blas F. Ople said the second phase of the agreement is largely under way with former MNLF combatants receiving livelihood assistance from the Philippine government in close cooperation with the United States Agency on International Development (USAID).

"The success of the GRPMNLF final peace agreement is rightfully viewed here as a major diplomatic trophy of the OIC. The settlement sets precedents that hopefully will inspire the last remaining separatist movement in Mindanao, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), to follow in the path of peace," Ople said.

The Wirajuda report is expected to indirectly boost the Philippine bid to be accepted as an observer in the OIC. "I have been assured that our bid will be discussed along with that of other candidate countries in the next OIC ministerial conference in Istanbul, Turkey in 2004," Ople said.

There are three other countries besides the Philippines asking for observer status in the OIC: the Russian Federation, South Africa, and Ghana.

He noted that Pakistan, a full member of the OIC, is expected to block the entry of India which has yet to submit its bid. The OIC would have to decide on a technical problem about "overlapping representation" of the Philippines and the MNLF as an observer, the MNLF being the recognized current observer in the OIC, represented by the incumbent MNLF chairman, ARMM Gov. Parouk Hussin.

"Once this technical problem is sorted out, I see no other impediments to the Philippines bid for observer status in the OIC," Ople said.

Session opens today

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia - The 57-member Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC), with kings, prime ministers, and presidents in attendance, including the Philippines' President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, will open today, Oct. 16, its three-day 10th Session of the Islamic Summit amid calls for radical reforms in the beleaguered pan-Islamic body founded in 1969 in Rabat, Morocco.

Mrs. Arroyo's breakthrough attendance came through an invitation from Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad, host of the largest meeting of Muslim leaders held every three years.

The Chief Executive and her delegation that includes Muslim Filipinos led by Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) Gov. Parouk S. Hussin arrived late Wednesday afternoon at the $900-million Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA).

Her presence in the global Islamic leaders' meeting at the imposing Putrajaya Concention Center (PCC) here marks the first time a Philippine President was honored with an invitation from the OIC.

This was preceded by the Philippine government's earnest efforts in wooing the support of the Muslim world for the settlement of the rebellion in Mindanao, particularly with the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

It could be recalled that Foreign Affairs Secretary Blas Ople also scored a first when he was invited to the OIC's 30th Session of the Islamic Conference of Foreign Ministers (ICFM) in Tehran, Iran, last May 27-31, a yearly event in the pan-Islamic body's calendar of events.

Hussin, who is leading a delegation of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) attending as OIC observers, noted the significance of the President's presence in the grand opening session of the Islamic summit.

"President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo's attendance in the 10th Session of the Islamic Summit of the OIC shows the growing attention given by the Muslim world to the Philippines and the Filipino people," the ARMM chief executive said.

"We are hopeful that this will usher in a much-needed assistance from the OIC for the country's peace and economic development thrust, particularly for the ARMM," he added.

In her pre-departure statement in Manila, the President laid down her goals in coming to the OIC summit.

"I am going to Kuala Lumpur to seek broader assistance and support of the Islamic world for peace and development in Mindanao which will open up a wider spectrum of opportunities to promote the welfare of Filipino Muslims and enhance our diplomacy with the Islamic world," Mrs. Arroyo said before boarding her plane at the Villamor Airbase in Pasay City.

"As we seek the keys to peace, we shall also open the doors to development and progress. While we shall not negotiate with terrorists, we shall mop up the spawning grounds of terrorism. We shall continue to join the nations of the world in an earnest will to find harmony and stability in the midst of ethnic and religious discord," the President added.

However, a damper of sorts will greet the President on her arrival as the resolution sponsored by Indonesia, chairman, of the OIC's Ministerial Committee of the Eight, for the Philippine bid for a permanent observer status was reportedly "killed" in the committee meetings.

Bobby Alonto, who is a member of the MILF group that came for the summit, told the Manila Bulletin that majority of the committee members did not support the resolution.

Ople submitted to outgoing OIC Secretary General Abdelouahed Belkeziz the country's application for an observer seat last May 28 in Tehran, Iran. The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) top official said then the MNLF's observer seat would be "subsumed" to the government's once it is granted.

However, MNLF officials have opposed the grant of observer status to the government, maintaining the Sept. 2, 1996 peace accord was not yet fully complied with.

The government, on the other hand, said the agreement has been substantially implemented.

Meanwhile, Pakistani Prime Minister Pervez Musharaf was set to propose the creation of a high-level expert group to the summit today to set in motion radical reforms in the OIC to make it "a dynamic, credible and forward-looking body."

The OIC has been dubbed an "Oh, I see" group, meaning it only comes up with tons of resolutions on resolving problems facing Muslims and their countries, but these remain only in paper.

Peace initiatives

President Arroyo is expected to rally support for the government's peace and development initiatives in Mindanao when she meets with the 57-member Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) in Kuala Lumpur today.

The President, accompanied by a handful of Cabinet officials, left yesterday for an overnight trip to Malaysia to attend the 10th session of the Islamic Summit Conference.

It is the first time a Philippine president was invited to join the largest gathering of Muslim leaders in the world.

In her departure statement, the President said she will seek broader assistance and support of the Islamic world for peace and development in Mindanao.

She expressed hope the support of the world's Islam nations would open a wider spectrum of opportunities to promote the welfare of Filipino Muslims.

"I am going to Kuala Lumpur in search of lasting peace in Mindanao and to make sure it will continue to be within our grasp," she said.

She also plans to enhance the Philippines' relations with the OIC member-states in her bilateral meetings with some of them.

Arroyo made clear her trip to Malaysia is not only about seeking greater autonomy or social justice for Filipino Muslims but about "their search for dignity, heritage, and a sense of belonging to a respected community within a diverse nation."

"As we seek the keys to peace, we shall also open the doors to development and progress," she said.Ruling out any negotiations with terrorists, the President vowed to mop up the spawning grounds of terrorism that has plagued the southern part of the Philippines.

"We shall continue to join the nations of the world in an earnest will to find harmony and stability in the midst of ethnic and religious accord," she said.

She thanked Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad, host of this year's OIC summit, for his invitation. "I wish him the best in his three-year stint at the helm of the organization just as he retires as Prime Minister at the end of this month."

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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