Crunch vote in troubled southern Philippines could bring peace, say residents

Security forces check identification at a checkpoint in Cotabato on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao on January 20, 2019, a day before a vote on giving the nation's Muslim minority greater control over the region. (AFP / Noel Celis)
Updated 21 January 2019
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Crunch vote in troubled southern Philippines could bring peace, say residents

  • Decades of insurgency could end on Mindanao island
  • People urged to forget ‘bitterness of the past’

COTABATO, Philippiness: Residents on a troubled island in the southern Philippines have told Arab News that peace is within reach, as they prepare for a crucial vote taking place on Monday.

They said they hoped the poll would end decades of conflict on Mindanao and usher in development and progress.

More than 120,000 people have been killed on the island and 2 million have been displaced, as armed groups battle government forces to win independence for the Muslim minority living there.

Nearly 3 million people in the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARRM) are expected to vote on ratifying a law that will create a bigger region called Bangsamoro, which will have its own domestic legislation, more funding and get to keep a greater share of locally generated taxes.

A second round of voting will be held on Feb. 6.

Jim Lan lives in Sulu province, a known stronghold of the Daesh-inspired Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG).

He used to be in a group that was fighting for an autonomous Muslim state, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF).
 
“I will vote yes to the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL),” Lan told Arab News. "This law, it’s like being semi-independent. It will bring peace and order and generate projects for the people of Mindanao which is what the Tausugs (an ethnic group of the Philippines) have been praying for. Once development will set in, it will help eliminate the ASG and other such groups. Because that's what they also want for their family, so their children can go to school.”

Last month Congress backed President Rodrigo Duterte’s bid to extend martial law on Mindanao until Dec. 31, 2019, after he said terrorism was still a problem on the island. He first imposed martial law there in May 2017, after Daesh-inspired fighters seized the city of Marawi.

Duterte flew to Cotabato City on Friday, where he joined thousands of people to make a final pitch for the ratification of the BOL.

“The fact we have reached this point after so many years of negotiations and interruptions, we are here,” the president said, referring to the decades-long peace process between the government and the Moro Independence Liberation Front), which wants an autonomous region for the Moro people.

“Let us forget the bitterness of the past and look forward to the future, which means ladies and gentlemen... vote yes,” he said, adding: “Your approval of this law will not only serve as an expression of your desire to end more than half a century of armed struggle in the region, it will also serve as a testament to your determination to bring peace.”

Yusop Jikiri, chair of the MNLF, said the BOL would have a significant impact on current and future generations.

“Our president is seriously concerned for the ratification of the new autonomy law for Bangsamoro because it is the legacy of his administration to put an end to the historical injustices committed against the Bangsamoro people,” Jikiri told Arab News, adding that while the law was not perfect it was “the only available solution to the aspirations of our people.”

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana led a delegation of high-ranking government and military officials to Sulu to stress the importance of ratifying the BOL.

“This is our chance to make our present situation better. We shall pass on a more prosperous Mindanao to the next generation,” he told more than 10,000 people who had assembled at the gymnasium of Mindanao State University. “What is happening right now is history in the making.”

Mindanao resident Hussein Dalindin was optimistic about the future, saying there would be greater respect for Islam and recognition of people’s demands for independence because of the BOL.

He also used to be part of a group fighting for independence.

When asked what would happen if the BOL was not implemented, he told Arab News: “I am willing to go back (to war) and continue our struggle.”


US says ‘committed’ to defeating Daesh; allies skeptical

Some of the 20 ministers, including those from the US, France, Britain, and Germany, pose for a photo prior to the 55th Munich Security Conference in southern Germany, on Friday. (AFP)
Updated 49 min 57 sec ago
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US says ‘committed’ to defeating Daesh; allies skeptical

  • Acting US Defense Secretary Shanahan envisions a ‘bigger and stronger’ coalition to fight Daesh globally

MUNICH: Acting US Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said on Friday that the US is committed to defeating Daesh in the Middle East and beyond, but officials said European allies are skeptical of Washington’s pledges.
US President Donald Trump’s announcement in December that he was withdrawing all 2,000 US troops from Syria surprised and rattled allies. US officials have crisscrossed the Middle East in recent weeks to reassure them that Washington remains committed to the region.
Trump’s Syria decision was opposed by top aides, including Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who quit, leaving his deputy Shanahan in charge of the Pentagon.
“While the time for US troops on the ground in northeast Syria winds down, the United States remains committed to our coalition’s cause, the permanent defeat of Daesh, both in the Middle East and beyond,” Shanahan said after a meeting on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference.
The meeting included about a dozen defense ministers from the coalition to defeat Daesh. Kurdish-led fighters are battling to capture Daesh’s last major stronghold in Syria, but even without territory, the militant group is widely seen as a continuing threat.
Shanahan said he envisioned a “bigger and stronger” coalition to fight Daesh globally. “We will continue to support our local partners’ ability to stand up to the remnants of Daesh,” he added.
However, European officials said they were given few details during the closed-door meeting in Munich and many questions remain. “We are still trying to understand how the Americans plan to withdraw. I don’t think there is any clarity still,” one European official, speaking on the condition of anonymity said.
Another official said Shanahan did not provide allies with a timeline of the American withdrawal from Syria and allies expressed skepticism during the meeting. A senior US defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said no commitments were made during the meeting and there was little discussion about timelines.
“These meetings don’t tend to have specific deliverables or decisions, it tends to be more focused on taking stock of where we are,” the US official said.
Trump has said he expects a formal announcement as early as this week that the coalition fighting Daesh has reclaimed all the territory held by the group.
Around 20 ministers including those from the US, France, Britain, and Germany will take part in the meeting, according to one source.
US forces are the largest contributors by far to the anti-Daesh coalition and their pullout will leave a vacuum in Syria where major powers are jostling for influence.

Withdrawal issue
“The withdrawal of the American troops from Syria will evidently be at the heart of discussions,” said French Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly before the meeting.
“Once the so-called caliphate no longer has any territory, the international community will have to guarantee that there will be no resurgence of Daesh in Syria or elsewhere,” her ministry’s statement said.
The end of Daesh territory in Syria is heightening worries about experienced militants and foreign fighters escaping and forming new Daesh cells in Syria or beyond.
Once American forces leave, another complication emerges: The future of areas in northern Syria controlled by Kurdish YPG forces, a key US ally in the fight against militants but a militia branded terrorists by Turkey.