Duterte scores points as his peace adviser holds talks with MILF leader

MINDANAO, Philippines–President Rodrigo Duterte has stepped up efforts to bring peace in Southern Philippines by sending a government negotiator Jesus Durteza to hold talks with Hadji Murad Ebrahim, leader of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

Philippine President-elect Rodrigo Duterte speaks during a conference with businessmen in Davao city, southern Philippines June 21, 2016. REUTERS/Lean Daval Jr/File Photo

Philippine President-elect Rodrigo Duterte speaks during a conference with businessmen in Davao city, southern Philippines June 21, 2016. REUTERS/Lean Daval Jr/File Photo

Dureza met Murad at Camp Darapanan in Sultan Kudarat, Maguindanao, on Thursday and the two discussed peace over breakfast.

This was the first engagement between the MILF and Duterte government.

The move comes two weeks after the Armed Forces of the Philippines launched an offensive against the Abu Sayyaf Group that killed at least 40 militants.

In another peace move during his visit to the southern region Thursday, Duterte appealed to Abu Sayyaf to end violence even as troops were confronting its members in Basilan.

The proposed road-map to peace in south will involve all rebel factions in the Bangsamoro Transition Committee including representatives from the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and other Islamic rebel factions.

MILF broke away from the MNLF when the latter started negotiating with the Philippine government in the 1970s.

During the two-hour meeting Thursday, Durteza also welcomed the “convergence” of the MILF and MNLF-Sema group in ending the Mindanao conflict.

Durteza said the government is hoping to build on what has already been gained while Murad said the Front will respect all the previous agreements with the government.

The two discussed peace efforts under Duterte. Dureza said the government would abide by all agreements, including the Comprehensive Agreement on Bangsamoro.

Duterte thinks a federal form of government can bring peace to Mindanao and he is hoping that the Bangsamoro Transition Committee will become a consultative body covering all Bangsamoro representatives.

But MILF wants the passage of Bangsamoro Basic Law which had failed to get lawmakers’ approval during the past administration.

The basic law seeks the creation of a new autonomous region that will replace the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao which was created after the government reached a peace deal with MNLF.

The Philippine government and the MNLF had signed a peace agreement in 1996 but 12 years later, some disgruntled members of the MNLF violated the peace pact by attacking Zamboanga City in 2013 and engaging in a three-week violent battle with about 4,000 Philippine foot soldiers.

As new president, Duterte will be facing an insurgency problem involving five militant groups.  Of them, the Abu Sayyaf Group has at least 400 heavily armed members who are resorting to kidnappings, extortions and killings.

Another rebel group posing threat to the government is the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), a breakaway faction of the MILF.

Also in the insurgency list is the MNLF which was founded by Professor Nur Misuari who became a fugitive after allegedly ordering the attack on Zamboanga City.

The left leaning New People’s Army (NPA) has become a lesser threat after Duterte inducted its leaders into his cabinet.

During his Basilan visit, Duterte spoke to a gathering of 300 soldiers, policemen and leaders.

Press Undersecretary Peter Lavina said to Asia Times that “He (Duterte) visited our soldiers in both Basilan and Zamboanga City and got a briefing on the campaign against Abu Sayyaf kidnappings in the south-western Philippine seas.”

While the government has deployed thousands of battle-tested marines and seasoned Philippine scout rangers to engage in a firefight with the Abu Sayyaf holding hostages in Basilan, Duterte appealed to the group to end all forms of violence.

He was quoted saying in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, “I don’t see anything good coming out of this war. For the sake of our children, we have to stop this war.”

It was Duterte’s first visit to Basilan after he became the President of the Republic.

The military offensives in Basilan has already caused the displacement of 4,000 civilians. Ginanta and Makawa have turned into ghost villages as most residents have fled the area and do not want to return to their homes where armed fighting is still going on.

Duterte is set deliver his first State of the Nations Address on July 25 in Manila.

According to Pulse Asia, he is enjoying 91% trust rating.

Besides fighting militancy, he has promised to end drug menace within six months.

Noel Tarrazona is a freelance Vancouver-based international journalist but is presently in the Philippines. He is a senior analyst of Wikistrat and can be reached at ntarrazona@gmail.com

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