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COMMENTARY: The Kato experience: Who is to blame?

GENERAL SANTOS CITY (MindaNews/04 October) — The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) finally handed out a decision to expel renegade leader Ameril Umra Kato from the rebel ranks more than two years after he led bloody attacks following the failed signing of the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD).

Until those fateful attacks, which claimed the lives of several civilians and combatants, Kato was largely known only inside the Moro rebel ranks.  He was described as a low-profile but highly respected Muslim scholar and a loyal commander and friend to MILF’s founding chair Salamat Hashim.

The Kato-led 2008 attacks were one of the bloodiest episodes of the Mindanao conflict.

These also sowed the seeds of disunity inside the MILF.

If ever, both the MILF and the Philippine government have only themselves to blame if the ongoing peace process becomes even more complicated with Kato on the outside looking in.

I have always questioned both the MILF and the Philippine military’s handling of Kato in the days immediately after the attack and in the period that followed it.

For one, the military’s branding of Kato as a “lawless MILF element” was clearly a ploy to drive a wedge between him and the central leadership of the Moro rebel group – a wedge that now nobody wants.

The ruse put the MILF in an awkward position because while it seemingly was in the moral high ground for its reaction against the ‘reactionary backlash’ of the botched MOA-AD signing, picturing Kato as a blood-soaked intransigent commander also had its flipside.

He became a rallying figure of hard core Moro rebels who want complete independence and nothing else and thus weakening the bargaining position of the MILF in the peace negotiations.

But the MILF also contributed its share in creating a headache of its own.

In October 2008, or barely two months after the hostilities broke out, before scores of members of local press, the MILF through Ghadzali Jaafar, vowed to launch an investigation and impose sanctions against Moro rebels who were found to have violated its own code of conduct.

Jaafar even promised to provide the press copies of the results of the investigations.

The MILF never did.

As it now appears, the MILF only seriously handled Kato’s status as a rebel commander when the suspended peace negotiations were resumed under the Aquino government.

By then, its position was terribly weakened and Kato’s head became the tradeoff of the peace process.

That it took the Ulama Council to finally address the Kato question only highlighted how respected a rebel commander Kato is in the MILF.

Going after him now may not be as easy as it was two or three years ago.

Like I said before, the peace process in Mindanao is better off with Kato in than out.

Now, how do you do that? (Edwin G. Espejo writes for www.asiancorrespondent.com)

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