Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Moro attacks won't derail peace talks

IN November, Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) leader Al Haj Murad Ebrahim met  Malaysian media members at the one-time rebel group's main camp in Mindanao.

A question was put to him about whether he saw the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) as a threat to the peace accord, which was already in advanced stages between MILF and the Philippine government (GPH).

The peace accord, after decades of fighting, was brokered by the Malaysian government, so journalists from Kuala Lumpur were, of course, interested in what Murad had to say.

He said the MNLF had broken into five factions, with only the one led by Nur Misuari having "reservations" about the accord.

He had also said that Misuari had 1,000 people in his group, but that no violence had occurred and he was optimistic that there would not be a threat from Misuari's group.

That optimism must have been shattered on Monday when hundreds of MNLF followers attacked several cities in Zamboanga, landing in several places, in what was described as a coordinated plan.

Although Misuari was in hiding -- some reports saying possibly in Indonesia -- it was reported that the attack came about after threats from the Philippine government that the MNLF leader would be arrested. MILF still maintains that MNLF members would not be a threat to the MILF-GPH peace talks.

Those talks will continue, despite the renewed violence.

MILF optimism comes from the fact that Misuari's followers are considered few, a small minority compared with Mindanao residents who want to see the peace talks work so that they can find better lives for themselves and their children.

Whatever attacks they have undertaken, or are planning, will not derail the peace talks and will eventually peter out, even if it will take time.

The fact that there are "few followers" also means that those who do follow Misuari, therefore, will be concentrating on their current plans in Zamboanga, leaving Sabah safe from attack, even though Eastern Sabah Security Command personnel have been put on high alert.

Still, it is right for Malaysian officials to put security forces on high alert in Sabah. It is merely a precautionary measure, so residents there should not be unduly worried.

 Another reason, however, for the alert is that if MNLF forces should suffer setbacks in Zamboanga, its proximity with the east coast of Sabah could see these armed rebels coming here. Should the MNLF head here, however, sources said they are likely to seek to "ride out the heat" by laying low instead of creating a problem in Sabah.

 "Still, there is no sense in allowing them to enter the country unannounced. Hence, the high alert."

It is no stretch of the imagination that MNLF followers may enter Malaysia to hide out. Misuari himself had hidden here in 2001 after leading a failed rebellion in Zamboanga. He was eventually deported to Manila, where he was placed under house arrest until the Philippine government freed him in 2008.

Another possibility is that ordinary, peace-loving citizens in Zamboanga may try to flee the fighting there, braving that short boat ride to the coast of Sabah.

The alert also makes sense on another count, one that hits closer to home. It has long been postulated that Misuari is being encouraged by certain quarters to ensure the peace accord fails, simply because it was brokered by the Malaysian government.

 It has taken years and the main players are, of course, the Philippine government and the Bangsamoro people led by MILF. But the peace accord, when it is finally set in stone, will represent a success story for Malaysia and its government.

It is this that these quarters do not want. To them, the Malaysian government -- in particular the Barisan Nasional government -- should not receive any form of recognition for a successful peace plan.

So, any action by the MNLF, particularly the faction led by Misuari, needs to be closely monitored and guarded against, no matter how small the threat against Malaysia's sovereignty.

This is despite the fact that Zamboanga City mayor Beng Climaco had reportedly claimed that he spoke to Misuari, who denied involvement in Monday's attack, and disowned Hadir Malik, who is said to be the leader of the attack.

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