About 30,000 people, mostly Muslims, hold a peace rally Monday, January 07, 2008 in Cotabato city in southern Philippines. (Mindanao Examiner/CBCS photos).
COTABATO CITY, Philippines (Mindanao Examiner / Jan. 07, 2008) – About 30,000 people, mostly Muslims, joined a huge rally Monday in the southern Philippines and urged Manila to peace negotiations with the country’s largest Muslim rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.
The gathering in Cotabato City was part of a series of peace rally in Mindanao, according to the Consortium of Bangsamoro Civil Society (CBCS), a network of Muslim non-government and people’s organizations which helped organized the event.
The group said some 50,000 people have signed to join the month-long peace rally which is expected to end in Ipil town in Zamboanga Sibugay province. Many of those who participated in the rally came from Shariff Kabunsuan, North Cotabato and Maguindanao provinces.
The rally was held in response to the “fast changing” peace process in Mindanao that is reshaping the future of the locals, especially the civil society that comprises the greater majority in the grassroots, said Abdulbasit Benito, chairman of the CBCS media committee.
“The current status of the peace process in Mindanao is fast changing and reshaping the future of the ‘Mindanawons’ especially the civil society that comprise the greater majority in the grassroots. The expected signing of the Memorandum of Agreement between the MILF and GRP (Government of the Republic of the Philippines) in Kuala Lumpur on the issue of ancestral domain could have been a recompense for the ten-year long negotiation between the MILF and the GRP that commenced in July of 1997,” Benito said.
Benito was referring to the government’s stalled peace talks with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.
“But the stance of the GRP in nonconforming to the agreed consensus points, a clear manifestation of the feebleness of the GRP to bestow strong political will for the realization of the peace accord,” he said.
Benito said the peace rally carried the theme “Uphold the gains of the Peace Processes,” adding that “the initiative came out as a unified response to draw the attention of the ‘gate keepers’ of the peace processes.”
“We, in the civil society is aware of the fact that majority of people in the grassroots desire for a meaningful result of the peace process, not only to put an end to the ravages of war, but to address the longstanding political problem in a non-violent way,” Benito said.
Benito pointed out that the civil society’s unified response can create a desired impact by significantly reducing the possible incidence of conflict exacerbation brought about by the fragile peace confronting Mindanao. “Prerequisite to our yearning for human security, peace and economic progress is the attainment of a negotiated political settlement.”
“The action points generally aims to draw the attention of these ‘gate keepers’ to immediately take necessary actions and muster enough courage to bring about the long awaited peaceful settlement,” he said.
He said the second leg of the rally will be held on Thursday in General Santos City.
Eid Kabalu, a senior MILF leader, said the rally only showed how important is the peace process to the people in Mindanao. “We are not surprised at all by the huge turnout of people in the peace rally. Mindanao is for peace and we wanted peace also to rule in this homeland of ours,” he told the Mindanao Examiner newspaper.
Last week, Murad Ebrahim, leader of the MILF, appealed for patience over the failure of peace talks.
”The road to freedom is always full of twist and turn and to overcome, we must work, persist, and sacrifice,” Ebrahim said.
It was the second time the MILF appealed to Muslims and rebels for patience over the slow progress of the peace talks. Last month, Mohagher Iqbal, chief MILF peace negotiator, also appealed to Muslims to remain calm and patient over the failure of the talks.
Many rebel commanders are getting frustrated and restless over the failure of the seven-year old peace talks with the Arroyo government.
The MILF is fighting for a separate Muslim homeland in the strife-torn, but mineral-rich region of Mindanao. It accused the government of reneging to its commitment after peace talks last month failed in Malaysia, which is brokering the negotiations.
Iqbal said the Philippine panel agreed late last year on the scope of the Muslim ancestral domain, but later reneged on the accord that will constitute a separate homeland for more than 4 million Muslims and indigenous tribes in Mindanao.
Iqbal reiterated his previous statement and said his group is consistent with their demand for a Muslim homeland.
Iqbal previously said that the ugly turn of event in the peace process is taxing the patience of the MILF and the Bangsamoro people, who may be compelled to resort to other means of resolving the Mindanao conflict when they are pushed to the wall and become hopeless in the peace process.
He said the government peace panel must honor its commitment and previous agreement so the talks could resume.
”The government peace panel must honor its commitment to the Bangsamoro people because we wanted peace to reign and end the violence in Mindanao,” he said. “We will wait for the government to reconsider its decision.”
The MILF said government negotiators headed by Rodolfo Garcia completely disregarded the agreement on the ancestral domain and insisted again that the granting of homeland to Muslims in Mindanao would solely be through Constitutional process which the rebel group previously opposed.
The Philippine charter prohibits the dismembering of the country.
The ancestral domain which covers the whole of Muslim autonomous region and other areas in Zamboanga del Norte, Zamboanga del Sur, Zamboanga Sibugay, North Cotabato, Sultan Kudarat and Sarangani provinces where there are large communities of Muslims and indigenous tribes. And even Palawan Island in central Philippines and the Sulu Archipelago.
President Arroyo has opened up peace talks with the MILF in 2001, but since then no substantial agreements have been signed between the two sides, expect for the cease-fire accord.
The MILF earlier warned that hostilities may erupt in Mindanao if the peace talks fail.
The Philippine military previously demanded MILF rebels to lay down their weapons before peace talks could resume. (With reports from Mark Navales and Norodin Makalay)