MILF warns self-rule law delay may benefit extremists

Vivian Ho, Kyodo News

Posted at Mar 08 2016 09:45 AM

SERI KEMBANGAN, Malaysia - A Philippine Muslim separatist group expressed concern Monday that extremist groups like Islamic State could gain a foothold in conflict-ridden southern Philippines following the recent failure of the country's legislature to enact a law allowing autonomous rule.

Murad Ebrahim, the chairman of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, said Muslim-majority Mindanao, like the rest of the Muslim world, is not spared from the influence of Islamic State.

"For the past years, we've been trying to ensure ISIS will not gain a hold in Mindanao and we're trying to influence the people, let them understand and give them an impression that the solution to the problem in Mindanao is the peace negotiations that we are holding with the government, supported by the international community," he told a press conference in the outskirts of the Malaysia capital.

"But now, after the non-passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law, we're quite concerned that they can capitalize on this because the sentiment of the people in the area is now very strong. There's frustration after the non-passage of the law," Murad said.

Besides IS, he said, local separatist groups that are jostling for power may also scuttle the peace deal the MILF inked with the Christian-dominated central government in Manila in 2014.

The autonomy bill was part of the process of self-determination for the ethnic Moro people in Mindanao.

Under the auspices of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, the MILF has been holding dialogue with rival groups like the Moro National Liberation Front, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters and even the terror group Abu Sayyaf, notorious for cross-border kidnapping activities, to support the peace process.

"We have some progress during our dialogue. But what we are concerned is after the failure of passage of the BBL, then they will capitalize on the sentiment of the people," Murad said.

The May presidential election and the killing of 44 police during a failed counterinsurgency operation in Mamasapano in Maguindanao in January 2015 reportedly by members of MILF and the BIFF, helped to put the law into the backburner.

"If you look at the present presidential candidates, they are not very keen on talking about the peace process. After the incident in Mamapasano in January last year, politicians are trying to avoid the issue," he said.

Murad was in Malaysia after flying in from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where he held talks with OIC leaders on the situation in Mindanao. In a meeting with him last week, he said, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak expressed Malaysia's commitment to continue mediating the peace process.

Malaysia has been brokering the talks since 2001.

The MILF, which reportedly has up 12,000 guerilla fighters, has been in on-off talks with the government since 1997 to end 40 years of conflict that resulted in the death of an estimated 120,000 people and displaced more than 2 million in the southern Philippines.

The conflict has stunted growth in the region rich with minerals, oil and natural gas.