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Cause for hope in Mindanao

Publication Date : 11-07-2012


Predict a positive outcome to peace talks between the government in Manila and Muslim insurgents in the southern Philippines these days and you may well be accused of over-optimism.

Such negotiations have failed so many times since the 1970s that it is hard for independent observers to accept that the latest round will be any different. Yet there are good reasons for believing that the current round offers the best hope yet for a lasting settlement.

Asia's longest-running insurgency has combined with widespread banditry to claim the lives of about 120,000 people and displace two million more. About 10 years ago, Al-Qaeda- linked terrorist groups such as Abu Sayyaf were added to the mix.

The conflict, located on the southern island of Mindanao, has its roots in the late 1960s, when the Muslim minority - known as the Moros - launched an armed struggle for their ancestral homeland.

In 1990, after a series of negotiations, the government agreed to the creation of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). This involved voters in four provinces with Muslim-majority populations supporting plebiscites for limited self-rule. However, the agreement failed to satisfy many insurgents demanding complete independence, and a breakaway group calling itself the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) vowed to continue fighting.

In 2008, after the MILF abandoned its demand for independence, the warring parties came close to signing a second peace accord, but it was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

Those who believe that the latest round of negotiations will be more successful can point to a series of favourable developments.

In April, both sides committed themselves to the creation of a new autonomous region. International peace monitors are now in place, the MILF has promised to respect freedom of worship for Christians, and the government has been very open about the details of the agreements it has negotiated with the rebels.

The latter two points are crucial. Opposition to the 2008 accord had its roots in the objections of Christian mayors and governors in the southern provinces, who feared they might be included in an enlarged ARMM political union without being consulted.

The recent appointment of former MILF spokesman Eid Kabalu as a peace consultant to the Armed Forces of the Republic of the Philippines is another positive development. Although no longer an MILF member - Kabalu ran afoul of the MILF leadership when he participated in the 2010 national elections in defiance of an MILF boycott - his intimate knowledge of MILF practices could help prevent many future misunderstandings.

The most important cause for optimism, however, is the commitment both sides have shown towards maintaining the current ceasefire.

The peace effort nearly collapsed in October last year after MILF rebels killed 19 soldiers who allegedly entered MILF territory in violation of the truce. Fierce battles erupted in several areas on the island before both sides agreed to return to negotiations.

Since then, however, Mindanao has been remarkably peaceful. No clashes have been recorded so far this year. This compares with 115 in 2009, 14 in 2010 and just eight last year.

That said, there are several sensitive issues that remain to be settled. For some time now, the MILF has been complaining about raids and arrests of MILF members believed to be involved in murder and kidnapping incidents.

On June 17, for example, when police shot dead Wahid Pingli, a Muslim guerilla allegedly responsible for the kidnapping of two Americans, the MILF accused the government of breaking the ceasefire. "He is innocent," MILF spokesman Von al-Haq told Agence France-Presse, referring to "our slain comrade". Innocent or not, many Muslim extremists have turned to kidnapping for ransom in recent years, often targeting foreigners in ways that are hard for the government to ignore.

There are also indications that, having settled on the broad principles of a peace agreement, the two sides are finding it difficult to flesh out the details.

Last month, Mohagher Iqbal, who chairs the MILF negotiating panel, told over 100 Moro businessmen, Catholic bishops, foreign diplomats and others in Metro Manila that the talks had reached a stalemate. "Nothing happened at the last meeting," he said.

A successfully implemented peace agreement would not signal an end to all the violence on Mindanao. Clan wars between rival Muslim families (some involving MILF commanders) are likely to remain depressingly common. There is also the need to find ways to discourage unemployed former MILF fighters from turning to crime.

A peace deal would nevertheless be a huge step forward. It would also enable Manila to place more emphasis on the economic development of one of the Philippines' poorest areas. Now, that's something worth being optimistic about.


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