With a peace pact between the Philippine government and Muslim rebels having been cobbled through “secret” intercessions by the US government, a delegation of American trade officials led by Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker is in the country to jumpstart investments in car manufacturing, energy and infrastructure in Mindanao.
“I suppose everybody is interested in investing in Mindanao because it’s really an area where there is a lot of promise. But because of the issue on the MILF [Moro Islamic Liberation Front] before, there was great concern whether . . . it is wise to invest in Mindanao,” Malacanang spokesman Edwin Lacierda said of Pritzker’s mission.
The US trade officials were received in Malacañang by President Benigno Aquino 3rd, Finance Secretary Cesar Purisima, Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario, Energy Secretary Jericho Petilla and Philippine Ambassador to the Washington Jose Cuisia.
Lacierda said the US officials expressed interest in investing in mass transit and tourism.
“Now that we have come to a peaceful agreement with the MILF, many countries have been looking at Mindanao as a potential area for investment. We’ve seen other countries, Asean [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] looking into Mindanao. And so, the United States is also one of the countries [that]would be interested to look into investments in Mindanao,” the Palace spokesman told reporters.
“This was a delegation that Secretary Pritzker brought over to see where the United States can invest in,” Lacierda said.
The Manila Times had run a story about the possibility of the US military being granted “basing rights” once the Bangsamoro political entity was set into motion, especially in light of the enhanced defense cooperation agreement that was signed in April by the Philippines and the United States.
Citing a study by an in-house think tank of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), the Office of Strategic and Special Studies (OSS), The Times reported that Washington played a pivotal role in peace talks between the government and the rebels through “secret” meetings between US officials and MILF leaders, and indirectly, by providing aid.
“One thought is about an American-led plot to lend a debt of gratitude by helping Mindanao become independent and get repaid in terms of grant of US rights to set up bases there,” the OSS said in a book it has published, In Assertion of Sovereignty: The Peace Process.
The book was authored by Cesar Pobre and Raymond Jose Quilop, a political science professor from the University of the Philippines who has been providing policy directions to the AFP in the last two decades.
According to the OSS, General Santos City in South Cotabato is being considered as the future site for a US base.
“In any event, whatever interest the US may have in the peace process, it may be well to keep in mind that from 1999 to 2008, six meetings between US government officials and MILF leaders have reportedly taken place. In February 2008, [former]US Ambassador Kristie Kenney paid a visit to the main rebel base of Camp Darapanan in the town of Sultan Kudarat, Maguindanao, and met with MILF Chairman Al Haj Murad and Central Committee members,” the book said.
The meetings were so secret that “the visit was done apparently with no prior coordination with the appropriate government authorities.”
“The day before the visit, Kenney was with then DFA [Department of Foreign Affairs] Secretary Alberto Romulo for the opening of the Balikatan exercises,” it said.
The Balikatan (shoulder-to-shoulder) exercises are annual war games participated in by Filipino and American soldiers.
Reports about Kenney’s “secret” meetings with the MILF leaders were first made public by Wikileaks in 2011 through the release of purportedly secret cables from the US Embassy in Manila to Washington. The OSS book confirmed this.
It was widely known that after declaring war on terror as a response to the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York, the US government worried that Mindanao would become a “sanctuary or training ground for international terrorists.” Washington was aware of the MILF’s supposed links to Jemaah Islamiyah and al-Qaeda.
In a separate report also citing the same OSS study, the Malaysian government’s role as major peace broker was also under a cloud of suspicion.
According to OSS, Malaysia has been aggressively pursuing the signing of the peace pact between the Philippine government and the MILF for two reasons—its territorial hold on Sabah and the development of Liguasan Marsh in Mindanao, an area rich in gas reserves.
“Doubts by many a Filipino about Malaysia’s role have not been completely dispelled. They suspect that the Malaysians have been supporting Filipino Muslim separatist groups by funding and training their fighters and that brokering a peace agreement favoring them would ultimately favor Malaysia,” the OSS said.
It also said Malaysia and the MILF were a “tag team” in persuading Manila to giving in to the secessionist group’s demands. The MILF, the book said, was firm in having Malaysia as a peace broker.
Unlike the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), which has vowed to reclaim Sabah, the MILF has assumed a more flexible stand, mainly because Malaysia has been supporting its fight.
After the signing of the last annex of the peace agreement, Philippine Ambassador to Malaysia Eduardo Malaya said 13 Malaysian companies visited Cotabato province to explore investment opportunities there.
The companies, according to Malaya, were looking at oil palm plantations, rubber manufacturing, halal foods, infrastructure development and light manufacturing as lucrative ventures.