Saturday, February 16, 2013

News Analysis: Standoff in Sabah could derail peace process in Mindanao

From the Philippine Star (Feb 16): News Analysis: Standoff in Sabah could derail peace process in Mindanao

Even before the Philippine government and the secessionist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) could sign a final peace accord, an armed group of Filipinos claiming to be the royal armed forces of the Sultanate of Sulu has occupied a coastal town in the Malaysian state of Sabah.

The standoff in Tunduao, Lahad Datu town in Sabah, between the armed Filipinos and the Malaysian police has continued over the weekend.

The Malaysian town is just one hour by speedboat from the town of Simunul in the province of Tawi-Tawi, the southernmost tip of the Philippines.

A report in the Daily Inquirer, a leading newspaper in the Philippines, said that the heirs of the Sultan of Sulu have decided to press their claim to Sabah in the island of Borneo after they were left out in the peace process between the government and the MILF.

The report quoted Sulu Sultanate Crown Prince Rajah Mudah Agbimuddin Kiram as saying that the government appeared to have ignored their stand that their claim to Sabah should be made an " integral and essential" aspect of any peace agreement with any armed group in Mindanao.

Abraham Julpa Idjirani, secretary general and spokesman of the Sultanate of Sulu, said the decision to show not just physical presence but actual occupation of Sabah came late last year, shortly after the Aquino administration signed a Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro with the MILF.

In October last year, the government of Philippine President Beningo Aquino III and the MILF signed a framework agreement that would end the decades-old Muslim insurrection in Mindanao by the creation of a new political entity called Bangsamoro.

Idjirani said that before the signing of the agreement, the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process invited the heirs of the Sultan of Sulu to what was supposed to be a consultation on a peace deal with the MILF.

He said he was asked to give a lecture on the stand of the Sultanate of Sulu at a forum held at the University of the Philippines College of Law.

"We thought finally the government of President Aquino wanted a complete and comprehensive resolution to the peace, security and economic problems of territories in Mindanao by consulting with us. But it was just talk," Idjirani said.

"The framework agreement was finished without even the shadow of the Sultanate of Sulu and North Borneo. They just pretended to consult us," he said.

Rajah Mudah said that the present government in Manila and the previous governments were not interested in their claim and that was why they decided to act on their own.

"What we did was not an act of aggression but a journey back home," Rajah Mudah said.

Reports from Kuala Lumpur said Malaysian security forces had surrounded the Filipinos, whom they believed were a faction of Muslim rebels unhappy with a peace deal with the administration of President Aquino.

Rajah Mudah said he and his group were not arrested but admitted that they were surrounded by Malaysian police forces.

In a statement, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) here said that Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifa Aman had already assured Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario that Malaysia would respect the rights of the Filipinos in the Sabah standoff.

The statement said the Malaysian government had resorted to " negotiations to encourage" the Filipinos "to leave peacefully."

Both the Philippine military and the Malaysian military had established that the Filipinos' activity in Sabah had no approval from the Philippine government, the DFA said.

"In this regard, we therefore urge these concerned individuals to return to their homes and families," the DFA said.

What is happening now in Lahad Datu in Sabah is the direct offshoot of the former claim of the Philippines over much of the eastern part of Sabah, which was formerly known as North Borneo prior to the formation of the Malaysian Federation in 1963.
The Philippines, through the representation of the Sultanate of Sulu, claimed that Sabah was only leased to the British North Borneo Company and Sultanate's sovereignty over the territory was never relinquished.

Malaysia, however, considered this dispute as a "nonissue" as there was no desire from the people of Sabah to be part of the Philippines or of the Sultanate of Sulu.
Even before Malaysia was federated in 1963, the Philippines had already sent delegations to London reminding the British Crown that Sabah belonged to the Philippines.

As of 2004, the Malaysian Embassy in Manila had been paying cession/rental money amounting to $1,500 per year to the heirs of the Sulu Sultanate, which was started by the British government and later assumed by the Malaysian government.
The heirs of the Sulu Sultanate consider this rental as proof that they are indeed the rightful owners of Sabah.

Soldier wounded as rebels strike army convoy in Mindanao

From the Philippine Star (Feb 16): Soldier wounded as rebels strike army convoy in Mindanao

A Philippine Army soldier was wounded when leftist rebels detonated an improvised bomb and fired at an army truck on the way to help rebuild typhoon-hit areas in Mindanao today, the military said.

The incident happened along the Pan-Philippine Highway in Tagum in southeastern Mindanao at around 10 a.m., said Lieutenant Colonel Lyndon Paniza, spokesperson for the army's 10th Infantry Division.

Paniza said soldiers from the army's 66th Infantry Battalion assigned to a humanitarian task force were aboard an army truck when they were ambushed by an improvised landmine believed planted by the New People's Army (NPA).

"The soldiers were transporting construction material to (typhoon-struck) Compostela Valley province when attacked," Paniza told Xinhua by text message, adding that a soldier suffered shrapnel wounds and had to be transported back to an army hospital in Davao some 55 kilometers away. He said the army vehicle also sustained damage as a result of the blast.

The rebels also fired at the soldiers, sparking a brief firefight, before withdrawing to a forested area, said Paniza.

"Despite the incident, the military would still continue helping rehabilitate typhoon-affected communities in the region," the military official said, condemning the NPA attack as "anti- people and anti-development."

Army commander calls for localized peace talk

From the Philippine Information Agency (Feb 15): Army commander calls for localized peace talk

Third Infantry Division Commander MGen Jose Z. Mabanta Jr., in a press conference at Avenue Suites in Bacolod City, reiterated his call for localized peace talks.

“We call on everyone to help, the media especially to help us get the message across. Even the La Castellana massacre, should not be a stumbling block for localized peace talks,” Mabanta urged local media present during the presscon.

Mabanta disclosed that prior to the La Castellana incident, the military had been receiving feelers from potential surrenderees that they will continue despite the incident.

The 302nd Brigade is currently in pursuit operations against the perpetrators and operations will be stepped up with the influx of intelligence reports.

According to Mabanta, the incident made the NPA all the more divisive and there are in-fighting among themselves.

“CPP-NPA right now is liable for this (La Castellan massacre) aside from the Comprehensive Agreement on the Respect of International Humanitarian Law (CARIHL) because it is the only document which has been signed by the Government of the Republic of the Philippines and the National Democratic Front signed two years ago. This is a blatant disrespect of the CARIHL,” Mabanta added.

Meanwhile, although the military is not allowed to provide escorts to politicians, Mabanta urged candidates to coordinate with the military should they need security in their campaign areas.

“For candidates who are victims or required by the NPA permit to campaign, coordinate with the military or the police and we will treat your concerns with utmost confidentiality because we know there are security risks involved,” Mabanta said.

Misuari claims Barangay Dita as MNLF camp

From the Zamboanga Today (Feb 15): Misuari claims Barangay Dita as MNLF camp

Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) founder and chairman Nur Misuari has officially certified "Camp Said Yusop" occupied by the 2nd Division National Mobile Army based in Barangay Dita, this city, as an MNLF camp.

In his letter to Barangay chairman of Dita Sarabi A. Husin dated February 12, 2013, Misuari confirmed the existence of the MNLF camp in the barangay.

Misuari also informed the military and police authorities for recognition of the MNLF camp in Zamboanga City.

But Mayor Celso Lobregat has expressed his opposition on the claim of the MNLF chairman through his letter addressed to the Western Mindanao Command (WestMinCom) commander Lt. General Rey Ardo and Police Regional Office 9 (PRO9) regional director Chief Supt. Juanito Vano Jr.

Lobregat, in his letter to Dita barangay chairman, informed the village chief that there is no existing MNLF or Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) camp in the city.

The mayor questioned the existence of the Bansangmoro Armed Group in the area pointing out the violation on the implementation of the Commission on Election (Comelec) gun ban which only authorizes the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and Philippine National Police (PNP).

Lobregat plans to write the Office of the Presidential Adviser of the Peace Process (OPAAP) headed by Secretary Teresita Deles.

It will be recalled that in November 2001, the MNLF forces based in Barangay Cabatangan, this city, was driven out by the military and police troops during the two-day siege.

Malaysia in standoff with Abu Sayyaf

From The Peninsula (Malaysia) (Feb 15): Malaysia in standoff with Abu Sayyaf

KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia’s government said yesterday that its security forces had surrounded dozens of suspected Philippine militants in a remote area with a history of incursions by armed Filipino Islamic groups.

About 80 to 100 gunmen have been cornered in the Malaysian state of Sabah on Borneo island, Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein told reporters.

He said security forces were negotiating with the men near the small coastal town of Lahad Datu.

“We know the situation is still under control. I confirm that no Malaysian citizens, to my knowledge, are being held hostage or for ransom,” Hishammuddin said.

“Security forces are still in control and negotiating with them, some of whom are armed.”

He declined to confirm that the gunmen were from the adjacent southern Philippines.
But asked whether Philippine authorities were involved in negotiations,
Hishammuddin said: “Of course they will have to be involved in the operations.”

National police chief Ismail Omar had said in a statement late on Wednesday that “the intrusion is a result of the problems in the southern Philippines”.

That was an apparent reference to Muslim militants and other lawlessness in the southern Philippines, which lies just across the Sulu Sea from Sabah.

Malaysia is predominantly Muslim.

Earlier yesterday Prime Minister Najib Razak was quoted by a newspaper as saying that police were negotiating with the gunmen “to get the group to leave peacefully to prevent bloodshed”.

“We have surrounded the area and our police and armed forces have the ability to handle the matter,” he said.

The report added that a tight security ring including army and naval forces had been thrown around the “heavily armed” group.

Wednesday’s statement by Ismail had said the men had surrendered when ordered and the situation was defused. The government has not yet explained the about-face.

A Philippine military official said that Manila did not rule out the possibility that the men could be members of the Abu Sayyaf.

The small gang of self-styled Islamic militants has carried out previous raids in Malaysian waters.

In 2000, Abu Sayyaf guerrillas seized 21 mostly Western holidaymakers as hostages at the Malaysian scuba diving resort of Sipadan near Lahad Datu, taking them to Philippine islands. They were later ransomed.

“We have received similar reports but we cannot confirm, nor rule out, whether they are members of the Abu Sayyaf Group,” said Philippine southern command military chief Lieutenant General Rey Ardo.

“Other lawless elements as well as (Filipino) pirates are also known to stray into Malaysian waters.”

A Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs spokesman said Manila was in touch with Malaysia over the case.

Security on Sabah’s coast has been a problem for Malaysia, with tens of thousands of Filipinos believed to have migrated illegally to the state over the past few decades and people moving freely across the maritime border.

Two Malaysians were kidnapped from a plantation in the area in November and were believed to have been taken to the southern Philippines.

Abu Sayyaf strikes fear among villagers

From the Star Online (Malaysia) (Feb 16): Abu Sayyaf strikes fear among villagers

[Article includes video interview of Hamid along with footage of local security response to the situation. Go to the following URL:]

CENDERAWASIH (Lahad Datu): Terror struck farmer Ben Hamid's heart when his brother came to his house and shouted that the Abu Sayyaf militants had landed.

“He came knocking at 2am on Feb 9 and claimed it was the Abu Sayyaf.

“He said the group had landed on the seaside village of Tanduo. I replied that we are finished'.”

“I fled with my wife and my 12 children,” the 47-year-old said, referring to the notorious armed group which had taken numerous hostages from Sabah.

Ben said that the first group of 18 Filipino gunmen landed on the shores of Kampung Tanduo and appeared to be friendly.

“They said one of their boat engines broke down and they had to land for repairs.

“One of them even approached a stall and wanted to buy some foodstuff using Filipino pesos,” he said, adding that the group also spoke about their ancestral land.

However, Ben said the group stayed on and more armed men started landing over the next few days.

He added that about 80 people from 15 families decided to flee the village before the Malaysian security forces surrounded it on Tuesday.

Philippine move in Spratlys dispute backed

From the Manila Times (Feb 16): Philippine move in Spratlys dispute backed

IN order to resolve its territorial dispute with the Philippines, China should join in the arbitration process before the United Nations (UN), a group of European Union (EU) lawmakers visiting the country said on Friday.

In siding the Philippines’ move to bring the territorial conflict before a UN body, the EU lawmakers described this as a good move and could prevent a military conflict between two countries.

EU delegation chairman Wer­ner Langen said that the union fully supports the government’s action aimed at resolving the conflict peacefully.

“It is in the interest of all the EU states that through the adherence to international agreements we solve these questions and solve the question of natural resources,” Langen said.

The Philippines has brought China’s alleged “illegal” expansive claim to the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) before the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos).

China was given until February 21 to issue a declaration if it wanted to participate in the resolution of the case before the Unclos.

The union delegation is in the country for a five-day visit to witness the economic and social developments of the Philippines, where they met with government officials and legislators.

To be recalled, China and the Philippines have been engaged in a standoff in the West Philippine Sea, which prompted the government to bring the case before a UN body.

Besides China and the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia are also claiming the disputed territory.

Photo: Campaign against terror

From the Manila Standard Today (Feb 16): Photo: Campaign against terror

Campaign against terror

Sub Lieutenant Deck Watch Keeper Chris Witters shows Customs Commissioner Ruffy Biazon an Auxiliary Utility Vehicle, one of the assets being used by the Canadian frigate HMCS Regina to fight terrorism. The frigate visited the country for three days to strengthen the relations between the Philippines and Canada. With Biazon are Deputy Commissioner for Internal Administration Lorenzo Tañada and Captain Glen Agudo of the Philippine Marine Corps. Sonny Espiritu

2nd salvage ship arrives at reef today

From the Manila Standard Today (Feb 16): 2nd salvage ship arrives at reef today

The United States has sent salvage ship Jascon-25 to Tubataha Reef to cut to pieces and remove the USS Guardian, a minesweeper, that ran aground in the protected marine sanctuary, coast guard officials said on Friday.

Coast Guard Commandant Rear Admiral Rodolfo Isorena said Jascon-25, which was based in Singapore, was expected to arrive at the site today to start salvaging operations.

“Our priority is effective salvaging and safety of personnel. We will continuously evaluate weather conditions and execute salvage operations within the bounds of safety,” Isorena said.

The USS Guardian ran aground on January 17 in the Tubbataha Reef Marine Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, after ignoring warnings from park rangers. At least 4,000 square meters of coral reefs were damaged.

Initial plans to lift the whole ship by crane and taking it away was abandoned because the operation would cause more damage. The US Navy decided to cut the ship to pieces.

Coast Guard Palawan Commander Enrico Efren Evangelista said the crane barge Borneo has proceeded to Tubbataha Reef to wait for the arrival of Jascon-25 in the area.

He said Jascon-25 would cut the minesweeper into pieces and Borneo would load the pieces to barges for transport out of the marine santuary.

Evangelista said Jascon-25 would be exempted from stop over and routine check at Palawan and would go directly to the site, but inpsectors would be airlifted by helicopter to the Jascon-25 on Sunday.

“It would still go through the procedure of Customs, Immigration and Quarantine inspection. The inspection would be done at the site on Sunday,” Evangelista said.

“What we are after is the time. If the Jascon-25 stops by Puerto Princesa it could mean a two-day delay in the operations because it has to travel 90 miles in order to reach Tubbataha Reef,” he said.

‘Sulu army’ digs in, snubs appeals of PH, Malaysia

From the Manila Standard Today (Feb 16): ‘Sulu army’ digs in, snubs appeals of PH, Malaysia

Some 200 Filipinos, some of them armed, refused to leave the Sabah town of Lahad Datu, a coastal town in northern Borneo, despite appeals from the Philippine and Malaysian governments as the standoff there entered its second day.

The Aquino administration called on the Filipinos, who claim to be members of the Royal Sulu Sultanate Army, to return to the Philippines immediately.

“We urge these concerned individuals to return to their homes and families,” Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario said in statement Friday.

Del Rosario, who confirmed in his statement that some of the Filipinos who went to Lahad Datu were armed, received a call from Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman to discuss the ongoing negotiations.

Del Rosario sought an assurance that the rights of the Filipinos who are permanent residents in Sabah and who may be among the group are respected.

He also said the intrusion was not sanctioned by the Philippine government.
“Philippine military and police authorities are exchanging information and closely consulting with their Malaysian counterparts in efforts towards an immediate resolution to this incident,” Del Rosario said.

“At the same time, increased patrols and tighter security measures have been put in place in waters off Tawi-Tawi and adjoining islands,” he added.

President Benigno Aquino III has already ordered the country’s police attaché to Malaysia to go to Sabah to get a clearer picture of the situation there.

The group was demanding to be recognized as the Royal Sulu Sultanate Army and said they had a right to remain in Sabah, Malaysia’s national police chief Ismail Omar told the media in Kuala Lumpur.

“The Philippine Embassy in Malaysia has already dispatched our police attaché to the particular area to see what is happening and we continue to monitor the situation,” deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte said.

Valte declined to comment further, saying the government wants first a “full and better handle on the facts.”

The area was once controlled by the former Islamic sultanate of Sulu and has had a history of incursions by armed Filipino groups.

Malaysian Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said security forces were in control and negotiating with the group, some of whom were armed.

“We have told them that they need to leave the country,” Ismail told the Malaysian newspaper The Star.

On Thursday, Prime Minister Najib Razak was quoted by Malaysian media as saying that police were already negotiating with the gunmen “to get the group to leave peacefully to prevent bloodshed.”

Sabah was leased by the Sulu Sultanate to the British since the 19th century. In 1963, it became part of the Federation of Malaysia despite protests from the Philippines.

In 1967, an attempt to land Filipino commandos on Sabah under “Operation Merdeka” was aborted after all commandos but one were killed.

The lone survivor of the carnage, Jibin Arula, revealed what was eventually known as the Jabidah massacre.

The dean of the UP Institute of Islamic Studies, Julkipili Wadi, said the latest incursion into Sabah could have big geopolitical implications, as it could mark renewed efforts by the sultanate to press its claim to Sabah.

Wadi said, however, that the claim of the sultanate is muddled by conflicting claims within the sultanate itself. “It’s disputed. There are more than 10 claimants to the sultanate, according to the genealogies that I have seen,” said Wadi.

He said “there are many layers of issues that have arisen through the decades,” citing the interests of the Philippines, which recently signed a preliminary pact, called the framework agreement, with the secessionist Moro Islamic Liberation Front that was brokered by Malaysia.

Aside from territorial concerns, Malaysia has also expressed an interest in natural gas exploration in the Liguasan Marsh, which is part of the territory defined in the framework agreement.

“The problem is Malaysia doesn’t know who to talk with because of the conflicting claims within the Sultanate of Sulu,” Wadi said. “They need a collective position, then they can make an arrangement, like rotating the sultanate.”

GPH, MILF, NGO start clearing landmines

From the Philippine News Agency (Feb 16): GPH, MILF, NGO start clearing landmines

When guns fell silent between the government forces and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the threat of the remnants of war is now being addressed through a joint mines/UXO clearance operations in partnership with the Philippine Campaign to Ban Landmines (PCBL) and the Foundation Suisse de Déminage France (Swiss Foundation for Mine Action) or FSD.

On Friday, the government, the MILF and the PCBL, launched the initiative in Mother Kabuntalan town in Maguindanao. “This project is all about implementing agreements; it is about rolling up our sleeves and getting our shoes soiled. This is the best occasion for peace negotiators because there are only a few moments that peace negotiators get to see the signed agreements in Kuala Lumpur become a reality. This is the kind of work that we will also try to bridge the gap caused by several years of war and mistrust,” PCBL National Coordinator Alfredo Ferrariz Lubang said in a statement.

The joint “demining” was contained in an agreement signed by both negotiating panels in Kuala Lumpur three years ago. In her speech, chief government negotiator Prof. Miriam Coronel-Ferrer recalled her first meeting with the leadership of the MILF was on the issue of banning anti-personnel landmines. She was then the PCBL National Coordinator. The engagement led to the commitment of the MILF not to use anti-personnel mines.

The MILF is the first armed group in the world who committed to ban the use of landmines. Mohaqher Iqbal, chief MILF negotiator failed to show up but Timuay Melanio Ulama, a member of the MILF peace panel board of consultants relayed his message on the activity.

He stressed that the Bangsamoro’s aspiration is in line with the vision of the initiative “From Battlefields to Ricefields” and reiterated the full support of the MILF in the implementation of the agreement.

Ambassador Guy Ledoux of the European Commission, together with seven members of the European Parliament, congratulated all parties for this effort. In his message , Honorable Werner Langen reiterated EU’s support for the peace process. Craig Willis, Programme Manager of FSD gave an overview of the project which entail a survey and mapping of communities, marking of suspected hazardous areas, and clearing operations in coordination with both the GPH and the MILF.

The Joint Task Force on Mines/UXO Detection and Clearance, composed of the members of the GPH-MILF coordinating committee on the cessation of hostilities, PCBL and International Monitoring Team, is tasked to oversee the implementation of the agreement.

As per military and MILF estimates, more than 20 unexploded ordnance litter in areas were government forces and Moro rebels used to fight in many parts of Mindanao.

Three farmers died when they accidentally stepped on an unexploded ordnance in Magundanao. The lastest was in August 2012 in Datu Unsay in Maguindanao where a farmer’s plow accidentally hit an unexploded mortar killing him and his water buffalo.

Palace to candidates: Report NPA extortion activities

From the Philippine News Agency (Feb 16): Palace to candidates: Report NPA extortion activities

Malacanang appealed to candidates running for this year’s midterm election not to give in to the demands of the New People’s Army (NPA) asking huge amount of money for the candidates to enter rebel strongholds to campaign.

The Armed Forces (AFP) reported the NPA is charging candidates as high as P 5 million per candidate for permit to campaign as well as permit to win. In a radio interview over dzRB Radyo ng Bayan Saturday,

Deputy Presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte said NPA’s extortion activities must be stopped, asking candidates to report to authorities if they are approached by the rebels.

“That is not something that is required, that is not something that is tolerated, at umaapela tayo doon sa mga kumakandidato na let’s not give in to these demands, especially, sinasabi nilang pang-campaign permit daw ito and to report to the proper authorities kapag merong ganitong panghihingi sa inyo,” Valte said.

Valte made the appeal not only to administration candidates, but also to all candidates who are running to shun the practice.

The military said the NPA’s campaign fees ranged from P 50,000 to P 5 million, or P 5 million from the candidates for governor, P 500,000 from the candidates for vice governor or congressman, P 100,000 from the candidates for provincial board member or mayor, P 75,000 from the candidates for vice mayor, and P 50,000 from the candidates for councilor. The rebels ask money from candidates to ensure their victory in areas controlled by the rebels.