By Jeffrey M. Tupas
20 Aug. 2011
MAGUINDANAO—The warning was very specific: No smoking in front of Ameril Umra Kato or anywhere close enough for him to see or near his armed followers called the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
“That is something that you cannot do in front of him. His men were ordered to give up smoking,” said the guide, who linked us to Kato, the fugitive commander of the MILF and wanted for a series of attacks on civilians since early 2008. The strikes intensified when the government aborted the signing of a proposed Bangsamoro homeland deal with the MILF.
For Kato, smoking and drinking alcoholic beverages are only a few of the worldly indulgences that corrupt the morals of people, gravitating them toward sin—something that are against the teachings of Islam.
This worldliness, he said, is present everywhere, even in television shows and movies. Therefore, he reminds his followers to always be guided by the teachings of the Koran so they will be strong enough to resist the temptations.
He has refused to watch films anymore, if this meant not being able to get reruns of those featuring the only actor he has admired—Fernando Poe Jr.
“I like him (Poe) because he is an eskrimador (a swordsman). And then he is also a pistolero (gunslinger),” he said.
“Films nowadays are different,” Kato said. “Everything is craziness, lewd and dirty. All you can see are men and women touching each other and kissing. Everything is twisted.”
The problem, he said, is that these acts of immorality are being tolerated by the government as it apparently benefits from the destruction of human morality.
He goes back to his idol, Poe, the only topic that had him expelling a hearty laugh.
“We all know that he won the elections against Gloria Arroyo. But was he able to perform as president of the country? It was still Gloria because she had power, money and the military. How can Gloria really win?” he asked.
Kato is moving around Camp Omar in Maguindanao. His old stronghold was overrun by government forces in 2008.
He talked to journalists recently inside a nipa hut atop a hill that forms part of what appears to be an endless cogonal expanse, except for tree-covered patches and cornfields.
He was surrounded by his followers, most of them wearing black shirts printed with “Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters of the MILF” in golden yellow.
Inside the hut were two women and a baby girl. Later, we were informed that the two women were the duwaya or wives of one of Kato’s commanders.
Now 65, Kato is being considered by the MILF Central Committee as a “problem” in its ongoing negotiations with the government. And Kato apparently knows that.
Kato said that even if the government and the MILF Central Committee were to seal a peace agreement, the conflict in Mindanao will continue. “That may happen. That is why the central committee wants me back for their peace negotiation to go on without a glitch. That is what they want,” he said.
Kato said the decision of the MILF Central Committee has confused him.
“They dropped me and now they wanted me back. I will never join them again, even if I die. I have lost trust in them. How can you trust leaders who cannot defend and fight for their principles?” he said.
Mohagher Iqbal, head of the MILF negotiating panel, has described Kato as “erratic.”
“Study the personality of Kato,” Iqbal said as he stressed that for the longest time, Kato had refused to follow orders from the central committee.
“In every struggle, there are radical thinkers. All of them have sentiments. But is he popular? Does he have an Islamic revolutionary line that could sustain the struggle?” Iqbal said.
He acknowledged that the MILF considers Kato a problem in the peace process.
“But this is just part of the whole process. Those who are following the same line will go through together and those who are opposed will also group together. It is not surprising,” Iqbal said.
Contrary to the claim of Kato, Iqbal said the central committee still pursues the ideals of the MILF. “We remain to be true to the principles,” he said.
Iqbal said the Kato issue is something that the MILF leaders will resolve at the soonest time. He also acknowledged that they had tried to win back Kato.
“We sent four emissaries composed of senior Ulama (religious leaders) to reason out with him. Our line is very clear. If he has something to score against the MILF, let us discuss this in the central committee. That is why from base commander, we elevated him to the central committee so that we will be able to discuss his concerns,” he said.
“If he can convince the leadership that he is right, then we will follow that. But he sniped at our back. That was foul,” he added.
Kato joined the Moro revolution in 1972, when he was an Islamic teacher in Lupon in Davao Oriental. A native of Datu Piang town in Maguindanao, he was twice arrested for teaching rebellion in Moro communities in Davao Oriental.
Kato, who said he is good at farming, married a woman in Lupon and they had two children. The two, however, separated.
In 1980, he flew to Riyadh in Saudi Arabia to study Islamic fundamentalism. There he met Salamat Hashim, the founder of the MILF, who was then going around Arab nations.
The MILF then was already gaining strength after bolting from the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) led by Nur Misuari.
“He (Salamat) explained to me why the MILF had to be formed. He told me why they had to continue the struggle. The MNLF only wanted to be given territory. Sheikh Salamat desired that the Bangsamoro would be freed and that we will self-govern based on the teachings of Islam,” he said.
And he pledged to Salamat his commitment and life to the MILF.
“I assured him of my loyalty. But Islam has to be in the middle of this struggle. If this struggle will no longer be guided by the teachings of Allah, then I would be out. That was what I told him. That was and is my principle,” Kato said.
Asked to describe his way of leadership, Kato was quick to say that he is very religious.
“Everything that we do and must do are based on the Koran. Politics, economics, and how we relate to others—everything must follow what Allah told us to do. Our faith is our life,” he said.
The “purpose of jihad,” he said is to “make the words and will of Allah over anything.”
Abu Janad, 29, said Kato rises above other MILF leaders when it comes to strictly following the Islamic teachings.
“He is the most strict of them all. The discipline that he imposes on us is something that has drawn me toward him, to follow him,” said Janad.
Janad, who now acts as one of the close guards of Kato, said he admires Kato’s way of leadership.
“Look at him. He is old. He is a learned man. And he has studied in the Middle East, but he is in our midst—continuing the revolution of the Bangsamoro people, living a life that is not being experienced by many people his age,” Janad said.
Always, he said, Kato tells him to continue the fight.
“That we the young people are the ones who will advance the struggle if he is no longer with us,” he said.
“We believe that we are fighting for what is right. I have seen in him this passion to liberate us, the Bangsamoro people. He inspires me,” said Janad, whose five brothers are also members of the MILF.