THE British government may review its travel warnings against certain conflict-stricken areas in Mindanao (south of Manila) once the peace agreement between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) is signed.
Thomas Phipps, the British Embassy in Manila’s second secretary for security, told reporters in a press briefing that they are looking at reviewing the travel advisories in Mindanao where there is a standing warning of “all but essential travel” and “all travels.”
Ninety-nine percent of the time the British government has not changed its travel advisories in countries unless there is a significant change in the security situation.
As part of the International Contact Group (ICG) that oversees the Mindanao peace process, Phipps said the British government may indeed lift the travel warning in eastern Mindanao (all but essential travel) if a credible peace agreement is signed.
But in parts where there is an advisory against all kinds of travel, particularly in the southwest Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago, the official said they may have to take in more considerations because of the high threat of violence from secessionist groups and those who may want to “undermine” the peace agreement.
If United Kingdom will be confident with a lasting peace agreement, those areas under the warning of “all but essential travel” will be the first to receive an upgrade in travel advise.
Phipps, however, said they have to be careful in lifting the warning against Sulu archipelago and the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) because “violence” may occur in areas where there are groups who “want to undermine the peace agreement.”
“The sad reality is there is an increase in violence when an agreement is signed,” he added.
On Saturday, the British government’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) updated their travel advisory to remind British citizens of the high threat of terrorism in parts of Mindanao.
It has maintained its warning against all but essential travel to eastern Mindanao and all travels to southwest Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago.
The travel advisory on eastern Mindanao included Dagupan, Oroquieta, Butuan, Tandag, Prosperidad, Malaybalay, Nabunturan, Tagum, Mati and Digos.
Southwest Mindanao and Sulu archipelago are composed of Bongao, Jolo, Isabela, Sharif Aguak, Ipil, Tubod, Pagadian, Isulan, Koronadal, Marawi, Kidapawan, Koronadal and Alabel.
“We believe this could bring about peace and reconciliation and allow people to go down [to Mindanao],” Stephen Lysaght, the embassy’s charge d’affaires, told reporters.
He also said that the British government only issued warnings against certain parts in Mindanao, but is encouraging British citizens to visit about 80 percent of the country, which they believe is safe.
Part of the mission of the embassy is to increase the exchanges between the two countries, Lysaght said.
A framework agreement for a comprehensive peace agreement was signed last year between the Philippine government and the MILF. Recent talks in Kuala Lumpur between the two parties concluded two out of the four annexes in the agreement.
In January, the Annex on Transitional Agreements and Modalities was agreed upon while July saw the Annex on Wealth-Sharing being concluded. Two more annexes remain—the Annexes on Power-Sharing and Normalization.
The conclusion of the four annexes will lead to the signing of the comprehensive peace agreement.
Meanwhile, about 90 percent of the information used by the British government to update its travel advisory to the Philippines are gathered from domestic sources, Phipps said.
“Ninety percent of the information we get come from Philippine sources. We don’t have people running in Mindanao. We get it from the military, the police [and the local people],” he added.
He also said British nationals who live in certain areas where there is conflict send messages to the embassy regarding possible threats there. This is in opposition to the general perception that information about the insecurity of the Mindanao region comes from British intelligence.
Phipps added they also consult with local police and military officers if the information on the security situation of the region can be published to the public. Of course though, it doesn’t mean that local officials here can influence the issuing and the updating of travel advisories.
“It’s about finding a form of words where we are both satisfied. Of course, they can’t tell us ‘no,’ but we make sure we communicate very clearly. If that information came from an intelligence [source], we don’t want trouble for that person,” he said.
Lysaght also told reporters that they make sure travel warnings are issued and updated in a way that is fair and informative.
“We have to be driven by facts. We do think about this very carefully. It’s a complex judgement but hopefully, it is fair. Hopefully, it reflects what we know and the advise we give,” he said.
“We don’t rush our advisories. We’re proportionate. Bad things happen to many cities around the world. It does not mean that the British government will rush judgement,” Lysaght added.
Phipps explained that the United Kingdom established the Joint Terrorism Assessment Center (JTAC), which was tasked to assess a threat in an “unbiased and uninfluenced manner.”
The reports on the ground are sent to the center, whose experts will be assessing such information based “on a whole number of different things,” he said. BERNICE CAMILLE V. BAUZON