By K.S. Ramkumar, Arab News Staff
Publication Date: 
Fri, 2002-05-03 03:00

JEDDAH, 3 May — The Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) has for the first time extended invitation to the Philippines to attend its meeting of deputy foreign ministers being held later this month.

The invitation follows a meeting of a six-member delegation, led by Eduardo R. Ermita, chief peace adviser of Philippine President Gloria Arroyo, with OIC Secretary-General Abdelouahed Belkeziz here yesterday.

In an exclusive interview with Arab News at the VIP lounge in the South Terminal of King Abdul Aziz International Airport before the delegation’s return to Manila, Ermita said: “We apprised Belkeziz about the developments in the Muslim Mindanao including the signing of a solidarity agreement reached last year between the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in the interest of undertaking development programs together.”

“Belkeziz was happy to hear the developments as he felt that one body should represent the Bangsamoro people in the Philippines. He emphasized that all splinter groups should form one single body representing Muslims,” Ermita added.

He said the invitation was a significant step in their quest for a political solution to the so-called Mindanao Conflict. “This is the first time we’ve been invited to the OIC senior officials meeting. This is important because we’ll be able to ventilate our concerns in more depth,” he said.

The meeting is scheduled here on May 19-20. The Philippine government and MNLF are also seeking invitation from the OIC for the foreign ministers’ conference in Khartoum on June 27-29.

The MNLF was formerly the main Muslim separatist group in the Philippines, but the OIC helped broker a peace accord in 1996 with Manila that led to the creation of the Southern Philippines Council for Peace and Development and expansion of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) headed by MNLF members.

The OIC still monitors the peace accord with the government and the MNLF has observer status in the OIC.

In the past the Philippines was obliged to lobby OIC members on the sidelines for any amendments to official resolutions since it has no formal status at the OIC level.

Indonesia will issue the invitation to the Philippine government to take part, and Ermita, a retired army general and former congressman, who is the chief Philippine peace negotiator, will likely represent the government, according to Manila-based Foreign Undersecretary Lauro Baja.

Baja based his information on the basis of what Indonesian Foreign Minister Nur Hassan Wirajuda had told him.

Ermita expressed the hope that he would once again lead the same delegation to the OIC meeting that ended its five-day visit to the Kingdom last evening.

The delegation members are Hatimil E. Hassan, interim chairman of the MNLF and assembly member of ARMM; Muslimin G. Sema, mayor of Cotabato City and secretary-general of the MNLF; Abuamri A. Taddik, MNLF deputy secretary-general for military affairs; Adrian S. Cruz of the Department of Foreign Affairs; and Gracia B. Gorgoña, director at the Office of the Presidential Adviser.

The delegation was accompanied by Ambassador Rafael E. Seguis, Consul General Kadatuan P. Usop and Ezzedine Tago, third secretary at the Philippine Embassy in Riyadh.

The delegation had meetings with Yousef Al-Bassam, vice chairman and managing director of the Saudi Fund for Development; Dr. Abdullah Abdul Mohsen Al-Turki, secretary-general of the Muslim World League; and top officials of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs — Ismail Al-Shoura, undersecretary for political affairs; and Mohammed Sharief Al-Faiz, director general for Islamic Affairs, in Riyadh; on Sunday.

They had a meeting with IDB President Dr. Muhammad Ahmed Ali on Monday and with the OIC secretary-general yesterday.

Ermita said the IDB had offered an assistance of $16 million for socio-economic programs related to health and education of Muslims. The Saudi Fund for Development’s offer of soft loans was of $20 million toward development projects in the area. Other organizations including UNDP, USAID, OPEC and those in Canada had also pledged funds in support of infrastructure projects in Muslim Mindanao.

Philippine attendance at the OIC meeting comes after a clash with the faction of ousted MNLF chief Nur Misuari, who is under detention since his arrest in Malaysia in December 2001.

Misuari was installed as governor of the then four-province (now comprising five provinces and one city) ARMM as part of the peace agreement but last year, he was ousted as MNLF chairman by his peers amid accusations of graft and misgovernance. Misuari was subsequently replaced as governor by Dr. Parouk Hussin, another MNLF official. Hatimil E. Hassan replaced Misuari as MNLF chairman.

Misuari is facing criminal charges for allegedly inciting a revolt last November in Sulu province, which resulted in more than a hundred people killed, mostly from his side. He has raised the issue of MNLF leadership with the OIC.

The OIC is separately helping the Philippine government with peace talks with the MILF, which broke away from the MNLF in 1978.

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