Keeping the Peace: The International Monitoring Team (IMT) in Mindanao
Keeping the Peace: The International Monitoring Team (IMT) in Mindanao
by Ayesah Abubakar
Mindanao Peace Program
Research and Education for Peace,
Universiti Sains Malaysia
The international community confirms the United Nations significant role in "peacekeeping" activities across the world today. UN peacekeeping forces located in several "hotspots" take the crucial task of preventing and managing violent conflicts or renewed armed hostilities in as much as a peace process or peace agreement among parties remain to be at a fragile state.1 Malaysia has been involved in UN peacekeeping missions since 1960-64 (Congo) and had become an active participant in various missions in Asia, Africa, Middle East, and Europe where at some points its officers have held leadership positions. Recently, Malaysia participated in the East Timor Mission and with its own officer serving as the mission's force commander.2 Over the years, Malaysia has accumulated a great deal of experience when it comes to peacekeeping operations. On the other hand, its current mission in Mindanao as the lead force in the International Monitoring Team (IMT) is historically significant and unique as this is the first time that it embarks on a non-UN initiative. This deployment of an IMT in Mindanao is authorized under the provision of Chapter 8 of the United Nations Charter which allows peace settlement to be managed under a regional arrangement and upon the invitation of the host government.3 In this mission, the Malaysian peacekeepers form as a major contingent in the IMT together with other participants from Brunei and Libya. The IMT plays a critical role in supporting the current GRP-MILF peace negotiations and in continuing the momentum for the resolution of the conflict in Mindanao.
The GRP-MILF Peace Negotiations and Malaysia The GRP and the MILF started engaging themselves in peace talks since 1996, but it was not until 2001 that the Government of Malaysia came in as their official facilitator and host to the negotiations. Some of the significant agreements facilitated by Malaysia were the Agreement on Peace Between GRP and the MILF of June 22, 2001 (Tripoli Agreement), the Implementing Guidelines on the Security Aspect of August 7, 2001, and the Implementing Guidelines on the Humanitarian, Rehabilitation and Development Aspect of May 7, 2002. In this case, the IMT is not only tasked to monitor the upholding of a cease fire from both camps but is also mandated to monitor the implementation of the above signed agreements and ensure that the peace process progress to the stage of rehabilitation, reconstruction, and development of the conflict affected areas. These two conditions are equally important for confidence building measures as the peace talks are being pursued and a final peace agreement is yet to be signed.
The difficulties of the ongoing GRP-MILF peace negotiations include intervals of cease fire violations, suspension of peace negotiations, administrative delays, from the conflict parties and the third party facilitator as well. With this, the entrance of the IMT physically present in the conflict area and having direct access to the GRP and MILF adds another dimension as it further strengthen the peace process on the whole. In principle, the IMT is well supported by the GRP and MILF in the conduct of their work. They are assured of cooperation and "free movement" from the soldiers of Armed Forces of the Philippines and the MILF, the GRP-MILF Coordinating Committee for the Cessation of Hostilities (CCCH) and Local Monitoring Teams (LMTs) in its field investigations. Nonetheless, they are escorted by GRP-MILF security during their activities at all times. In as much as the IMT wants to disseminate information and publish its investigation reports for public interest, it is primarily bound to submit its reports to the GRP and the MILF Peace Panels. And since the IMT's creation is hinged on the consent and full cooperation of the conflict parties, the termination or suspension of their involvement is dependent on the uncooperative response and declining relationship between them. This adversarial situation would then manifest into a more intractable relationship between the GRP and the MILF.
The International Monitoring Team (IMT) was officially deployed in Mindanao on October 10, 2004 with a one year mandate. The team is composed of 60 members in which there are four Libyans, 10 Bruneians, and the rest are Malaysians. Upon arrival in Mindanao, the members were re-grouped and stationed in five areas or sectors that cover the conflict areas, namely, Iligan City, General Santos City, Davao City, Zamboanga City, and Cotabato City which serves as its headquarters. Earlier, there were controversies regarding the refusal of the Mayor of Zamboanga City to allow the IMT to hold its headquarters there. This idea of locating the IMT as its headquarters originally came from the GRP. On the other hand, during the reconnaissance mission conducted earlier by Malaysia in March 22-30, 2004, the plan has always been to establish the IMT headquarters in Cotabato City. In the end, the GRP did not pursue this idea but has located an IMT office inside the Armed Forces of the Philippines Southern Command (AFP-South Comm) Headquarters in Zamboanga City.
All IMT members are financially sponsored by their respected governments. However, operation costs are borne by the Philippine government. These include local travel and accommodation, security, medical facilities, support staff, and other requirements by the group. The team members wear their official military uniform and they do not normally carry any firearms in the conduct of their mission although they are allowed to do so.
The deployment of the IMT is regarded as an important commitment by the governments of Libya, Brunei, and Malaysia. There were top level visits by Malaysian leaders that demonstrated this unequivocal support to the IMT as peacekeepers in Mindanao. On separate occasions, Deputy Prime Minister Mohammad Najib Bin Tun Hj. Abdul Razak (December 2004) and Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar arrived in Cotabato City in (April 2005) to personally give a moral boost to the IMT.
The IMT operations are carried out according to the specific role and responsibility it has been given. These roles and responsibilities are enumerated as follow:
- To observe and monitor the implementation of cessation of hostilities, as well as the socioeconomic development of the agreements. This includes receiving reports from the joint CCCH, LMT, Bangsamoro Development Agency (BDA), and other stakeholders. Also, the IMT should assess and determine the validity of specific reports, protests or complaints of cease fireviolations. These alleged violations and any actions taken should be coordinated with the Joint CCCH and LMT. Lastly, the IMT should determine if a particular report, protest or complaint has been acted upon substantially and satisfactorily at the level of the Joint CCCH or LMT, or whether there is a need for further verification investigation.
- To conduct field verification and validate any reported violation.
- To coordinate closely with the Joint CCCH and LMT on the conduct of the field verification and validation of the reported violation.
- To report to the GRP-MILF Peace Panels its findings and assessment of the reported violation.
- To ensure that all reports are classified and treated accordingly.
In the event of a cease fire violation or report of an armed confrontation between the AFP and the MILF, the IMT enters the scene when requested by the two conflict parties through the Joint CCCH and the LMT. Although the IMT is directly answerable to the GRP-MILF Peace Panels, it does not operate autonomously as it would always have "to coordinate" with the Joint CCCH and LMT. The IMT is also limited to reporting, and perhaps, in giving recommendations to the GRP-MILF Peace Panels.
In one of those first rare social engagements of the IMT since their deployment in October, several officers and members based in their Cotabato City headquarters has had the privilege of presenting their role and responsibility in a public forum participated by various civil society organizations (CSOs) in Mindanao.4 The CSOs were clearly looking forward to working with the IMT and wanting to make the IMT work as a third force in upholding the cease fire between the armed groups as evidenced by their questions and comments. However, it was only then the IMT has explained what they can and cannot do while in Mindanao. This, according to their mandated role and responsibility and as agreed upon by the peace panels. In spite of this limitation, the CSOs were generally optimistic and supportive of the IMT's positive contribution since they observe that their presence alone has helped deescalate the armed confrontations from both sides of the AFP and the MILF forces, at least during that period.
AFP-MILF Armed Confrontations
Generally, the more recent low intensity conflicts that occurred between the AFP and the MILF forces were caused by feudal conflicts, or locally known as rido. These conflicts escalated with the involvement of other elements from the AFP and the MILF. Another cause is the impact of the lack of coordination from the AFP in their pursuit operations of alleged Abu Sayyaf, Pentagon, and Jemaah Islamiah (JI) groups or individuals, especially when they are deployed in the MILF areas. The first issue should have been treated as a local conflict, and if need be, managed under the MILF's disciplinary body if it concerns erring members. On the other hand, the latter issue of ASG, Pentagon, and JI should be appropriately addressed to the GRPMILF Ad Hoc Joint Action Group (AHJAG) which is tasked to "isolate and interdict kidnap-for-ransom groups and 'other criminal elements' in MILF areas".5 Below are two of the incidences that occurred early this year that illustrate such situations. There is clearly a much needed opportunity for conflict parties to strengthen their cease fire monitoring mechanisms and bring about a more active participation of the IMT. It should be noted that in Case 1, the CCCH and IMT were not able to prevent the escalation of the conflict in time, but it has learned its lesson by responding to a brewing conflict immediately when Case 2 happened.
Case 1: Rido to Pursuit of ASG
The January 7, 2005 armed confrontation in Palembang, Sultan Kudarat had a background of a feudal conflict or rido that involved an MILF commander's family and the Mayor. Out from this existing local conflict, the AFP has been tip-off that the kidnap-for-ransom gang or Pentagon group is located in the same conflict area (a non-MILF area). This information launched the AFP offensive and killed the involved MILF commander. About 10,000 Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) sought refuge in nearby areas. On the other hand, the death of the MILF commander, who was later found out to be not involved in the rido, has triggered another MILF faction to retaliate and assault a military outpost in Baranggay Lintangan in Maguindanao. In March 1, 2005 the CCCH and IMT General Santos sector lead by Lt. Col Rahman Alavi and Head of Mission Major General Dato' Zulkiefli Mohamad Bin Zain Palembang visited the conflict areas particularly the most affected town of Palembang in Sultan Kudarat as part of its fact finding mission.6 Even two months after the violence, the IDPs refused to return to their homes knowing that the rido between the two family's continue to be a threat to local security.7
Case 2: Talayan Incident
An AFP military offensive operation was conducted in the early morning of April 15, 2005, at a known MILF area in Talayan, Maguindanao. The skirmish resulted to the deaths of three MILF soldiers and wounding five others. Casualty from the AFP was not known. Fortunately, this armed confrontation was immediately halted with the interference of the Joint GRP-MILF CCCH and the IMT headed by Major. Gen. Dato' Zulkiefli. It was found out that the AFP offensive was carried out to pursue alleged Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) elements in that area. However, no JI were found after the conflict and the culminating investigation of the monitors. The MILF CCCH recognized the MILF victims as legitimate members and noted that they were in fact supposed to conduct a "cease fire advocacy campaign" in the nearby district on that same morning.8
The Talayan case became significant as the resumption of GRP-MILF peace negotiation was only several days away. This has caused much controversy on the sincerity of the GRP in the peace process. Especially that this is not the first time that AFP has launched military offensives just before any peace negotiation is to be held in Malaysia. The MILF was reported to have submitted a formal complaint to the GRP-MILF Peace Panels on this incident. However, the positive outlook of both the GRP-MILF Peace Panels soon after their meeting last April 18-22 at Port Dickson in Malaysia, shows that they have not allowed themselves to be negatively affected by the low intensity conflicts (as violations of the cease fire agreement). Instead, they emphasized the progress of the negotiations.9
Malaysia's key role as third party facilitator to the GRP-MILF peace talks appears promising as it not only involves itself in the formal peacemaking but has extended its reach to the field of peacekeeping in the conflict affected areas in Mindanao. The IMT, being a project of the GRP and MILF Peace Panels, relies heavily on their acceptability or credibility to these negotiating parties, as far as their involvement (in terms of activities) is concerned. Further, the IMT, being a "guest" third party in an intra-state conflict is limited with mobility and access as their security is regarded on a high priority, mainly by the host country. In spite of this limitation, however, the IMT is contributing to "confidence building" between the conflict parties and in preventing another full scale war. Indirectly, this peacekeeping exercise also result to some peacebuilding outcomes as the IMT presence alone is felt in some CSO initiatives. The various IMT sectors or teams are often invited by CSOs in their own grassroots peacekeeping activities and public forum where various issues of the Mindanao conflict and the GRP-MILF peace process are discussed.
A recommendation on the IMT structure and operation is for IMT sectors, besides the Cotabato headquarters, to be more visible in their own efforts. Although some of the more recent outbreak of violence were located in nearby Cotabato, the IMT sectors in Iligan, Zamboanga, Gen. Santos, and Davao should be able to highlight any progress of the cease fire and the developing working relationship between the AFP and the MILF forces. This kind of information would be very valuable to all stakeholders in disseminating the small gains of the GRP-MILF peace process on the ground. Further, the positive IMT leadership in the Cotabato headquarters should be duplicated in the other IMT sectors that cover the rest of Mindanao. The impact of the IMT lies on how its presence is felt by the general public in all the conflict affected areas-during times of conflict or peace.
The preliminary engagement of the IMT in Mindanao may have shed some better comprehension of the contemporary dynamics of the armed conflicts and the whole social, religious, cultural, environmental, and political issues of the Mindanao conflict situation that could be helpful to the Malaysian Secretariat of the GRP-MILF Peace Talks as maybe reported by the IMT. Yet, there are opportunities for improvement. The IMT being a good channel for information for Malaysia can be more open and accessible to working with CSOs besides their official linkages with the GRP-MILF. As the mandate of the IMT includes the monitoring of the more important phase of rehabilitation, reconstruction, and development of the conflict areas, it should be able to learn more from the CSO efforts in this field for example. The IMT, besides its peacekeeping mission, can also act as "ambassadors of goodwill" in representing the Malaysian government and increasing its credibility as the third party facilitator. This diplomacy work is important especially to the local stakeholders since much of the relationships within the peace talks have been primarily limited to the top level-the GRP, MILF, and the Malaysian Government. It is inherent that the bigger local stakeholders are requiring more participation and ownership to the GRP-MILF peace process, especially so that this is the second attempt of resolving the conflict in Mindanao (the first attempt being the GRP-MNLF negotiations). And although this may not happen, there should be other ways or mechanisms that top level stakeholders can socialize and champion their efforts across all levels of stakeholders. The IMT-CSO linkage could provide such a potential mechanism in gaining more acceptance and support to the ongoing peacemaking and peacekeeping phases. Conversely, the IMT can take this opportunity in gathering viable ideas in making the Malaysian government a better and more effective third party facilitator in the GRP-MILF peace negotiations.
1. Kimberly Zisk Marten, Enforcing the Peace, Learning from the Imperial Past (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004)
2. United Nations Peacekeeping Mission website
3. A Seminar on "The Role and Responsibility of the IMT" organized by the Institute of Bangsamoro Studies held at Pacific Heights Hotel, Cotabato City on December 6, 2004.
5. Headline News, "MILF, GRP AHJAGs meet in Davao City", published in www.luwaran.com dated February 6, 2005.
6. News report, "IMT visits war-torn Palembang town", published in www.luwaran.com dated March 3, 2005.
7. Interview with IMT member in General Santos, March 15, 2005.
8. Report from members of Tiyakap-Kalilintad, a grassroots peacekeeping group organized by the Consortium of Bangsamoro Civil Society.
9. News report, "GRP-MILF Talks, substantial points reached on ancestral domain", published in www.mindanews.com, April 21, 2005.
Focus: The Asian Tsunami