Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Peace in Mindanao will benefit Sabah

IN APRIL 2001, I travelled into no man’s land to visit the captured Camp Abubakar, which used to be the headquarters of the Moro Islamic Li­­beration Front (MILF) in Maguindanao, Mindanao, in Southern Philip­pines. Camp Abubakar was the symbol of the MILF Islamic rebellion against the Philippines government since 1992.

The 5,000ha stronghold fell into the hands of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) when the then Philippine president Joseph Estrada ordered ground and air bombardments on the camp.

On July 10, 2000, after seven days of relentless attack, Estrada raised the Philippine flag in the camp.

During the journey, I stopped at a dilapidated elementary school which sheltered 300 families who fled their villages during intense fighting between the MILF and AFP. The villagers told me that they hoped peace will come to the MILF heartland.

Eleven years later, it looks like the villagers’ hope for peace will come true. On Saturday in Kuala Lumpur, the Philippine government and MILF reached a preliminary peace agreement to end the insurgency which has left more than 150,000 people dead and the country’s south poverty-stricken.

Malaysia, said Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak, was honoured that it had been able to broker the exploratory talks held since 2001.

The deal, according to Philippine President Benigno Aquino, is “a road map for establishing a new autonomous region to be administered by minority Muslims in Catholic-majority Mindanao”.

“This framework agreement paves the way for a final and enduring peace in Mindanao,” Aquino said in a nationally-televised an­­nouncement attended by his entire Cabinet on Sunday.

In my 2001 trip to Mindanao, I saw that the instability in impoverished southern Philip­pines had swept into the shores of my home state of Sabah.

Hajjah Maimunah Buruan, who was then a 52-year-old Iranun farmer, told me that many of her relatives were in Sabah as there were no economic opportunities in their country.

“How can they find work when the MILF and government are fighting non-stop? It is peaceful in Sabah and they can find jobs,” said the woman who lived at the dilapidated elementary school near Camp Abubakar.

How do my fellow Sabahans see the peace deal?

On Sunday, Kota Belud MP Datuk Abdul Rahman Dahlan tweeted: “#PeaceAccord in southern Philippines is probably the best news coming from that part of the world for ages.”

In his excitement of the “once in a life time” breakthrough, which “we must not let it slip away”, Abdul Rahman posted several tweets on the #PeaceAccord.

He tweeted: “Malaysia must continue to extend help (i.e. investments, human resource development, creating jobs and industries) in southern Philippines”.

“No one likes to leave their own countries in search of jobs elsewhere.

“This #PeaceAccord will reverse the influx of illegals into Sabah.”

“When southern Philippines is rid of violence and war, so will Sabah of its mother of all problems – illegal immigrants.”

The Kota Belud MP also tweeted: “When @yongtl (Datuk Yong Teck Lee) was CM, he initiated steps to reinvigorate southern Phi­lippines.

“We must continue and double this effort, now that we have #PeaceAccord”.

In a tweet reply, Yong, who was Sabah chief minister, wrote: “Sept 1996 Peace Accords between (Philippines) & MNLF (Moro National Liberation Front which split into MILF) brought peace but was later derailed by anti-peace forces under Estrada. Very sad.”

In a telephone interview later, Yong explained that he was cautious about the peace accord as “there are powerful people in Manila who reject peace in the South.”

He agrees with Abdul Rahman that if the peace accord became a reality, it would lead to a prosperous neighbour and it would benefit Sabah.

“The long history of conflict in southern Philippines has brought a lot of social problems in Sabah in terms of refugees and illegal immigrants,” Yong explained.

Filipino journalist Marites Danguilan Vitug agrees.

“If the peace agreement is implemented, more investors from Malaysia will come to Mindanao. And if their lives are improved, our brothers and sisters from these conflict areas don’t have to migrate to Sabah,” said Vitug, who co-authored the book Under the Crescent Moon: Rebellion in Mindanao.

But peace and prosperity in Mindanao will not come overnight.

First, the Aquino government and MILF need to hammer out a peace deal and agree to certain details such as wealth sharing and power sharing.

Vitug expect the final peace pact would be achieved in the middle of 2016.

“The positive impact of the deal will be felt beyond Mindanao,” she said.
 Written by : Philip Golingai


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