Philippine peace deal in jeopardy as Muslim rebels cry foul

admin   •   August 7, 2014   •   1890

Members of the elite Special Action Police walk next to an armoured vehicle as they reinforce soldiers battling Muslim rebels from the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) in Zamboanga city, in southern Philippines in this September 12, 2013 file photo.
CREDIT: REUTERS/ERIK DE CASTRO/FILES

(Reuters) – An historic peace settlement in the southern Philippines is at risk of breaking down as Muslim rebels accuse the government of going back on its word over a proposed law to create self-rule for the war-torn region.

The two sides, who signed the deal in March to end nearly five decades of conflict, are holding urgent talks this week to try to iron out the unexpected obstacles to what had been seen as one of President Benigno Aquino’s landmark successes.

A breakdown would risk a return to violence and a blow to hopes for an economic revival for resource-rich Mindanao island as potential investors in sectors such as agriculture and mining wait on the sidelines for the peace deal to be implemented.

Large companies such as food processor Del Monte Pacific Limited, which has a pineapple plantation in Mindanao, had said they were considering expanding operations after the deal. But most major foreign companies have held back pending evidence of a lasting settlement.

Under the pact the main rebel group – the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) – agreed to disband its guerrilla force and rebuild communities in exchange for wider powers to control the region’s economy and society. A joint government-MILF panel agreed details of the region’s powers and relations with the central government this year, submitting a draft law for approval by Congress.

But the hitherto smooth progress has stalled after Aquino’s legal team made surprise, sweeping changes to the draft law which the MILF says contravene the earlier agreement and would place unacceptable limits on their autonomy.

“We cannot accept this proposed law as it is,” Mohagher Iqbal, the MILF’s chief negotiator, told Reuters.

“We will lose face if we agree to this. Their version clearly departed from the letter and spirit of the peace agreement, which was the basis in crafting the proposed law.”

Iqbal’s comments to Reuters are the first public indication that the agreement is close to collapse.

Iqbal said about 70 percent of the nearly 100-page draft “Bangsamoro” law was either deleted or revised by Aquino’s lawyers, who reviewed the document for two months after it was submitted in late April for vetting. A copy of the revised legislation seen by Reuters showed entire sections of articles on territory, resources, and government structure had been deleted or revised.

AQUINO’S CAPITAL FADES

The peace deal – including provisions on revenue-sharing between the new region and the national government – was the product of more than 17 years of negotiations, brokered by Malaysia since 2001.

Analysts say the law appears to have fallen victim to recent legal and political setbacks suffered by Aquino, whose approval ratings have dropped after his flagship economic stimulus fund was declared illegal by the Supreme Court last month. He faces three impeachment complaints in Congress.

That has made Aquino, whose presidency has two years to run, wary of a new battle with the top court that could arise if the self-rule law contravenes the constitution.

“The president could have easily persuaded Congress to approve the Bangsamoro law if he still enjoyed a high popular rating. But he is facing a serious credibility problem because of his economic stimulus package,” said Julkipli Wadi, a professor at the University of the Philippines.

The government’s chief negotiator, Miriam Coronel Ferrer, denied the government had reneged on key pledges but said the proposed law had to be in line with the constitution.

“Let’s not point fingers at each other,” she said. “There were difficulties in the drafting of the law but the president is not afraid to gamble his political capital for this issue.”

The revisions by Aquino’s team seek to bring crucial elements such as resource sharing and taxation in line with the constitution, making the proposed new autonomous region more dependent on the central government for economic policy and law making. A higher degree of autonomy for the region could require Aquino to push for amendments to the constitution, which he is unwilling to do despite having large enough majorities in Congress.

Aquino has promised the autonomous region would be in place by January 2015. Following that, a referendum on whether to accept the new law will be held in Muslim Mindanao.

“The president should agree to amend the constitution and grant full fiscal autonomy, otherwise the rebels will reject this arrangement,” said an independent lawyer who is involved in discussions to resolve the problem.

“The talks are getting harder. I am afraid the rebels will go back to war if this process fails.”

BIG INVESTMENTS ON HOLD

There have been no clashes between the MILF and the army since 2011, but tension remains high in a region that is rife with poverty, guns and extremist Muslim splinter groups that have resisted joining the peace settlement.

“Challenges on the ground are very real,” Rommel Banlaoi, director at the Centre for Intelligence and National Security Studies, told Reuters, saying some MILF commanders are getting impatient and unhappy with the delay.

More than 120,000 people have been killed and two million displaced by the conflict in western Mindanao, a Muslim majority area in the mostly Roman Catholic Asian nation.

Renewed violence would wipe out the goodwill and increased business confidence since the March peace deal, said Ishak Mastura, head of the regional board of investments.

About 2.5 billion pesos ($57 million) in investments were registered in Muslim Mindanao in the first half of 2014, the highest in its history, Mastura said. Investments rose to nearly 1.5 billion pesos in 2013 from 569 million pesos in 2012.

Mindanao’s mineral reserves include gold, copper, nickel, iron, chromite and manganese and account for about two-fifths of total reserves in the country. The Sulu Sea and Cotabato Basin, both within the conflict zone, have combined reserves of 411 million barrels of crude oil, equivalent to more than three times the country’s annual consumption, and 2.3 billion cubic feet of gas.

“As long as there’s no shooting on both sides we’re still OK but if fighting resumes that’s an entirely new ball game,” Mastura said.

(Editing by Stuart Grudgings and Robert Birsel)

Philippines files diplomatic protest against China over confiscation of Filipino fishermen’s gears

Marje Pelayo   •   August 21, 2020

FILE PHOTO: A Philippine fisherman watches a China Coast Guard vessel patrolling the disputed Scarborough Shoal, April 5, 2017. Picture taken April 5, 2017. REUTERS/Erik De Castro

MANILA, Philippines — The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) lodged on Thursday (August 20) a diplomatic protest against China over the illegal confiscation by the Chinese Coast Guard of fish aggregating devices (payaos) of Filipino fishermen in Bajo de Masinloc in May.

The DFA added that “the Philippines also resolutely objected to China’s continuing illicit issuances of radio challenges Philippine aircraft conducting legitimate regular maritime patrols in the West Philippine Sea.”

In July 2016, the arbitral tribunal in The Hague in the Netherlands ruled in favor of the Philippines to invalidate China’s historical claims on the self-proclaimed ‘nine-dash line’ in the West Philippine Sea or the South China Sea.

The Philippines maintains that Bajo de Masinloc is well within the Philippine exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and the arbitral ruling declares it as a common fishing ground for Filipino, Vietnamese or even Chinese fishermen.

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Palace unconvinced PH has higher COVID-19 cases than Indonesia

Aileen Cerrudo   •   August 7, 2020

Malacañang is not convinced that the Philippines has surpassed Indonesia in the number of confirmed cases of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19).

During a press briefing on Friday (August 7), Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque said the Philippines is conducting more COVID-19 tests which resulted in more confirmed cases.

Ibig sabihin po dahil mas maigiting ang ating pagte-test hindi totoo na mas marami tayo kaso kaysa sa Indonesia. Hindi lamang nalalaman ng mga Indonesian kung sino-sino ang mga umiikot na mayroong sakit at least tayo alam kung sino po sila (It means we are conducting more tests. It is not true that we have more cases than Indonesia. The Indonesians don’t know who are sick at least, on our case, we know),” he said.

The Department of Health (DOH) has previously explained that the COVID-19 situation in the Philippines cannot be compared to other countries because of the population difference and health care system.

Meanwhile, Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) Secretary Eduardo Año said no country can say they have been successful in their fight against COVID-19.

“No country could ever say they are successful. Look at Japan, look at Italy, even Vietnam, and Singapore,” he said. “We focus on what we are doing is appropriate, proper, and practical rather than everyday compare yourself.” -AAC (with reports from Joan Nano)

PHL to allow entry of foreigners with long-term visas starting August

Robie de Guzman   •   July 17, 2020

MANILA, Philippines – Foreign nationals with long-term visas in the Philippines will be allowed entry starting August 1, Malacañang announced Friday.

The government’s task force against COVID-19, however, set conditions prior to the entry of these foreign nationals.

In a statement, Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque said that foreigners entering the country must first have valid and existing visas at the time of entry – this means that no new entry visa shall be accepted.

They are likewise subject to the maximum capacity of inbound passengers at the port and date of entry as returning overseas Filipino will be given priority.

Roque also said that foreigners are also required to secure a pre-booked accredited quarantine facility and a pre-booked COVID-19 testing provider.

He said the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-MEID) approved the policy on Thursday, July 16.

Previously, only Filipinos, their spouses and children, accredited foreign government and international officials and foreign airline crew were allowed to enter the country amid the community quarantine.

Last week, the government also lifted the ban on non-essential overseas travel by Filipinos subject to conditions such as confirmed roundtrip tickets for those traveling on tourist visas and signing a declaration form acknowledging the risks and possible delays in traveling amid the pandemic.

Meanwhile, Roque also said that the IATF on Thursday also decided to prohibit spectators in all outdoor non-contact sports and exercises in areas under general community quarantine (GCQ), and in indoor and outdoor sports and exercises in modified GCQ areas.

He also announced that the task force has authorized the recategorization of certain industries that will resume operations and the gradual increase of operating capacity of industries that are now open.

The task force likewise allowed the Department of Trade and Industry to issue a list of industries which shall remain closed even in areas under the MGCQ.

Roque said these development aim to revitalize the economy in Metro Manila and Region 4A. – RRD (with details from Correspondent Rosalie Coz)

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