08 Jul 2009
Peace Eludes Philippines
Amid intensifying violence and a burgeoning domestic refugee crisis, a peace pact remains elusive in the Philippines, Dr Dominic Moran writes for ISN Security Watch.
By Dominic Moran for ISN Security Watch
Chances for reconciliation appear slim as fighting continues between militants and government forces in the southern Philippines, now home to the world's largest internal refugee crisis.
Security forces are on high alert across restive Mindanao and south-western islands following four bombing attacks in 12 hours from Monday evening in which six died and 56 were wounded, blamed by the military on the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
Both sides accuse the other of atrocities and of systematic disinformation campaigns, making it hard to gain an accurate impression of events on the ground.
Following the effective abandonment of a draft MILF-government peace accord in mid-2008, the military launched hard-hitting operations against the group and Abu Sayyaf militants.
The MILF, which is believed to have around 11,800 fighters, has fought a three decade-long insurgency against Manila, having broken away from the parent Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) after the latter decided to come to terms with the government.
Speaking to ISN Security Watch, the editor-in-chief of the Mindanao Examiner, Al Jacinto, explained that many MNLF members went on to join the MILF "because they were disgruntled with the peace accord [and] because Manila promised a mini-Marshall plan, a livelihood and housing for former rebels, but this didn't materialize."
With the conflict increasing in intensity, the military has regularly blamed attacks on rogue MILF commanders, seeking to portray elements of the group as fractured and beyond the control of movement leadership.
This impression appeared to gain some credence when individual MILF commanders responded to the collapse of the peace process last year by launching a series of raids in areas of central Mindanao in which a number of civilians died.
The roots of the current conflict lie in the sense amongst the indigenous Moro Muslim populace of the region that they have been dispossessed unjustly of their land and resources and suffer related, systematic discrimination.
Muslims are now a minority in most areas of Mindanao due to decades of inward Christian migration from Luzon and elsewhere.
Alleged corruption and nepotism on the part of local magnates has played a role in preventing effective economic and services development vital to alleviating debilitating poverty, feeding the revolt.
"Many of the politicians in central Mindanao have been accused of grabbing lands from poor Muslims," Jacinto said. He singled out the wealthy Ampatuan family which holds a number of influential political offices including the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) and Maguindanao governorships.
The MILF reportedly fought Ampatuan militiamen in Maguindanao in 2006, while the Islamic militants have also sought to assassinate prominent family members.
The violence of recent months erupted in the wake of an August 2008 Supreme Court ruling that temporarily blocked, as unconstitutional, a Malaysia-brokered draft peace deal between the MILF and government known as the Memorandum of Agreement on the Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD).
The court blocking order was cemented in October and constitutes a major roadblock in the path towards a full and final settlement to the MILF militancy.
The judgment came as the government appeared to back away from the deal in the face of intense political opprobrium at what was perceived as the ceding of national suzerainty.
The fact that the secretly negotiated memorandum was made public through an official leak underlines the political sensitivity of the issues at hand for President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo's government.
Opposition to the memorandum also came from local authorities bordering the quasi-autonomous ARMM, which was to be strengthened, renamed and expanded by the pact to incorporate 712 villages and towns - many in areas which had voted against ARMM incorporation in the past.
The MOA-AD was a bold and laudable effort to draw a line under historic grievances, specifically recognizing the indigenous rights of the south's Moro population, granting them ancestral domain and recognizing their "patrimony" over traditional territories and (crucially) natural resources therein.
The new autonomy, dubbed the Bangsamoro Judicial Entity, was also to be given control over local security services, the courts and education and the right to negotiate trade deals with foreign states.
Despite the collapse of the deal, Jacinto believes both sides gained through the talks, with Manila earning a respite from militant attacks and the MILF gaining a window for recruiting and training.
While the debate in Manila continues over rapprochement with the MILF, the much smaller Abu Sayyaf remains implacable, if increasingly embattled.
Abu Sayyaf's ideological base is a variant of militant Sunni fundamentalism, quite alien to the more moderate traditional understandings and expressions of Islam in the region.
"In terms of the Islamic goals [of Abu Sayyaf], I think the original articulation is quite different but they have got caught up in this whole caliphate thing; not just independence but setting up Islamic states," Sydney University's Professor Adrian Vickers told ISN Security Watch:
The militancy appeared to fracture somewhat following the death of its original leader Abdurajak Abubakar Janjalani in 1998 and has increasingly relied on often brutal kidnappings to support its activities.
One of this week's bombings was on the island of Jolo where Abu Sayyaf militants have been holding an Italian Red Cross worker hostage since January.
The movement emerged from the MNLF and MILF and is believed to have ties with Jemaat Islamiya (JI) and, at times, al-Qaida - links the military often seeks to play on in alleging a MILF-JI association.
"The MILF is fighting for their rights, unlike the Abu Sayyaf," Jacinto said.
Demonstrating these purported links is important for the Philippines military in maintaining strong US backing for its counter-insurgency efforts, which took off in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. The US is providing technical and financial support and several hundred trainers have reportedly been on the ground since 2002.
Vickers alleged: "President Arroyo wanted to be seen to be doing the right thing by the US in the war against terror so she increased the level of conflict and it has been very difficult to move back from that."
The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) reported in 2008 that the Philippines had by that point the highest number of internally displaced citizens of any country, with 600,000 domestic refugees driven from their homes by the fighting.
Thousands are reportedly being housed in cramped, unsanitary temporary evacuation centers some of which lack safe potable water. Food shortages are also reported.
Non-combatants are regularly caught up in bombings and other militant attacks and in military counter-insurgency operations.
"Before the rations arrive they [the military] start bombing the area, they say that there are rebels, and in so doing they are stopping the delivery of food aid," Jacinto alleged. He added that food aid is also finding its way onto the local black market and into MILF hands.
Efforts are currently underway to revive the peace process through the reestablishment of the International Monitoring Team (IMT), headed by Malaysia.
The government and MILF peace panels are making conciliatory noises in support of ongoing backdoor negotiations, with officials saying that talks could begin by month's end.
However, the odds of a breakthrough that could lead to a successful accord appear bleak given that the MILF is unlikely to settle for anything short of the offers made in the MOA-AD.
Referring to the memorandum, Jacinto noted that "the MILF said they would not resume the peace talks unless Arroyo honors the agreement."
Ultimately, time is running out on both the current administration in Manila and peace efforts as political parties begin to look ahead to national elections next May.
"Things just haven't gone very well under the Arroyo presidency and I can't see any immediate settlement [emerging]," Vickers said.
With no respite in sight, violence looks set to peak as the polls approach, exacerbating the plight of the internally displaced.
Dr Dominic Moran, based in Tel Aviv, is ISN Security Watch's senior correspondent in the Middle East and the Director of Operations of ISA Consulting.
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