Saturday, July 10. 2010
CAMP IRANUN, Maguindanao – It was exactly 10 years ago today (July 10) when this supposedly impregnable main enclave then of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front that showcased a puritan, Taliban-style community fell after five weeks of government air, artillery and commando offensives.
Atop a hill at the eastern side of this camp, known before as the MILF’s Camp Abubakar Assidik, dwelt the rebel group’s founding chairman, the radical Islamist Salamat Hashim, who died of a heart ailment somewhere in the second district of Lanao del Sur in 2003.
Hashim, born in Barangay Cudal in Pagalungan, Maguindanao, studied Islamic theology at the Al-Azzar University in Cairo, Egypt and, subsequently, helped Nur Misuari organize the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) in the early 1970s, only to become estranged with one another due to their irreconcilable ideological differences that led to the birth of the MILF in 1980.
The MILF ran its own shadow government here and imposed the Sharia justice system that became institutionally strong that even Christians were seen coming over to file here criminal and civil suits against Muslims in Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao and North Cotabato.
Col. Ernesto Aradanas, commander of the Army’s 603rd Brigade, said soldiers have actively been initiating civil-military community projects as part of their effort to strengthen the implementation of the government-MILF 1997 ceasefire accord here and surrounding towns.
“Our men can be seen day in, day out moving inside the camp, mostly in civilian clothes, as if the area was not an extremely hostile area in the past,” said Aradanas.
It was on May 17, 2000 when government forces, led by now retired Generals Gregorio Camiling and Orlando Buenaventura, of the Army’s 6th Infantry Division and the Philippine Marine Corps, respectively, started encircling the 12,000-hectare Camp Abubakar. Their commando-style offensive commenced a day after Army and Marine combatants dismantled the last of the 17 guerilla checkpoints along the Secretary Narciso Ramos Highway, which traverses Barangay Langkong in Matanog, the gateway to the camp where some 3,000 trained, heavily armed Jihadists reside.
The July 9, 2000 fall of Camp Abubakar was initially celebrated by military officers and their men by hoisting the Philippine flag near a Madaris (Islamic school) adjacent to the MILF’s Abdulrahman Bedis Memorial Military Academy. Then President Joseph Ejercito Estrada came here the next day, July 10, 2000, to lead another symbolic flag raising event and feast on lechon (roasted pig) right inside an Islamic classroom, just meters away from a mosque, along with soldiers involved in the restoration of government control over this bastion of the MILF.
Camp Abubakar, renamed in 2005 by President Arroyo as Camp Iranun, subsequently, became a “peace zone” and residents have since been witnessing the tremendous pouring in of local and foreign-funded projects meant to complement the efforts of accelerating the socio-economic growth of local communities. The 12-kilometer bumpy road that connects the heart of what is now Camp Iranun, the command center of the Army’s 603rd Brigade, to the Secretary Narciso Ramos Highway is concrete and there are now public transportations plying the route even late at night.
“There is tranquility now in the surroundings of Camp Iranun, but what we want is lasting peace, a durable one, crafted as a common effort by the government, the MILF and all stakeholders, regardless of their religions and ethnic identities, acceptable to all,” said Vice Mayor Alexander Tomawis of Maguindanao’s Barira town, which has administrative jurisdiction over 80 percent of the land area covered by the camp.
Despite the fragile peace now in this camp, people remain apprehensive of their long-term security since the GRP-MILF talks, which formally started January 7, 1997, seems a long way yet.
The GRP-MILF peace overture, now Asia’s longest-running multi-lateral peace-building effort, started 1997 but gained headway only in 2003 with the help of Malaysia as facilitator. A multi-national contingent, the International Monitoring Team (IMT), which is comprised of soldiers and policemen from Malaysia, Brunei, Libya and non-military socio-economic specialists from Japan, have since been helping oversee the ceasefire in this camp and in dozens other potential flashpoint areas in Central Mindanao and the Zamboanga Peninsula.
Peace activists, some of them operating non-government organizations funded by international donor outfits, want the government and the MILF to focus, meantime, on capacity-building activities meant to generate awareness among Moro communities on the need for cross-section support for the ceasefire.
“There is also a need to propagate among people in areas covered by the ceasefire to help maintain peace and order in their communities while the GRP-MILF talks are underway,” said Oblate priest Eliseo Mercado, director of the Institute on Autonomy and Governance.
Mercado, who is overseeing dozens of peace-building projects in Mindanao assisted by the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung of Germany, said sectors in areas covered by the GRP-MILF ceasefire agreement should also be educated on the need for them to actively participate in all bilateral activities of both sides.
A Muslim preacher, Ustadz Esmael Ebrahim, a member of Islamic Darul Iftah (House of Opinion) said while most residents in Moro communities are optimistic of a final peace pact between the government and the MILF, they can’t avoid entertaining grotesque scenarios of armed conflicts.
The GRP-MILF peace talks twice collapsed, first after the government took over the rebel group’s supposed “last frontier,” the Buliok Complex, a 5,000-hectare guerrilla enclave in Pagalungan, Maguindanao in February 14, 2003, and, again after the August 5, 2008 aborted signing of by government and rebel negotiators of the controversial memorandum of agreement on ancestral domain (MOA-AD).
The agreement, which the Supreme Court already declared “unconstitutional,” was the supposed basis for the setting up of a Muslim homeland the MILF was to govern through its proposed Bangsamoro Juridical Entity.