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    Southeast Asia
     Jan 3, 2008
Peace delayed in southern Philippines
By Jeoffrey Maitem

COTABATO, Philippines - Two months after Manila and the Philippines' largest Muslim rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), agreed during mediated talks in Malaysia to a final settlement of their armed dispute, new complications have emerged that threaten to derail the deal.

Government officials and Muslim leaders have expressed optimism that the decades-old rebellion in the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, which has claimed the lives of more than 

150,000 people on both sides of the conflict, would come to a final and peaceful conclusion through a proposed new autonomy deal.

Marking a significant government concession, officials recently said they would consider a constitutional amendment that would allow for the creation of a federal state in Mindanao. The latest proposal was nonetheless rejected out-of-hand by the MILF as a "deceptive offer", underscoring the group's lingering concerns about the terms of implementation of any peace agreement.

Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo's mediators and MILF representatives were expected to sign early this year a final peace agreement that has already been drafted. Earlier it seemed that both camps had overcome the sticking point concerning the territorial composition of a proposed MILF autonomous region.

The draft agreement provides for the expansion of the current Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), first created in 1989, to also cover Muslim-dominated villages in central and western Mindanao, encompassing six provinces, two cities and a thousand Muslim-dominated villages. As part of the deal, the new autonomous region would be known as the Bangsamoro Juridical Entity (BJE) and a law would be passed to repeal previous acts that more narrowly defined the ARMM.

Now the talks have hit a snag, as the MILF raises questions about whether the government is negotiating in good faith. The MILF has rejected government negotiators' inclusion of the phrase "constitutional process" in the proposed draft Memorandum of Agreement as the mode of implementation of the agreement. The government has until now demanded that the BJE be approved by a plebiscite, a proposal that the MILF has rejected.

A plebiscite in 2001 that proposed to expand the ARMM from four to 14 provinces was voted down. Similarly, peace talks in 2006 bogged down after the government rejected the MILF's demand to include 1,000 villages in their proposed autonomous territory without a popular referendum. Now it appears Arroyo's government is willing to forego that requirement to finalize a deal.

Eduardo Ermita, a senior adviser to Arroyo, recently told reporters that since the MILF's second rejection of the proposed draft agreement, government negotiators are drafting other options to be presented some time this month, including a possible constitutional amendment. On December 15, Manila and MILF negotiators were supposed to finalize the agreement on the BJE's territorial composition, but the constitutional question gridlocked the talks.

The talks come against the backdrop of renewed hostilities between the two sides, where a ceasefire is at serious risk of unraveling. On December 18, US-trained Philippine soldiers clashed with a band of MILF rebels in the southern province of Sulu. Two soldiers were killed in the skirmish, which appeared to break the terms of the two sides' ceasefire.

Philippine officials have recently accused MILF guerillas of having ties with the Abu Sayyaf Group, which the US has included on its list of global terrorist organizations. MILF leaders have denied the allegations, but the Philippine government's strong support for the US-led war on terror in the region threatens to draw the rebel group into a wider ideological conflict. The MILF was briefly placed on the US's terror list in 2003 but was soon thereafter removed at Manila’s request as the government worked to strike a peace deal with the rebel group.

The MILF has long said it is better to have no deal than to enter into a poorly designed peace. MILF members are now starting to ask themselves if the proposed deal varies enough from previous government attempts to end conflict in the area and whether the deal on offer is too similar to the one Manila brokered in 1996 with the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), another Muslim rebel group in the area and which the MILF broke away from that same year.

Broken promises
MNLF leaders are now serving in Arroyo's government, yet others are still fighting and have joined with the MILF and other rebel groups because of Manila's perceived failure to honor the terms of their peace deal. MNLF interim vice-chairman Hatimil Hassan recently said in an interview with Asia Times Online that Manila has failed to comply with around 50% of that deal's provisions.

He said that includes a provision that paved the way for the establishment of Islamic sharia law-based courts in MNLF-controlled areas, which Manila has never allowed to be implemented. Nor has the government honored its peace deal pledge to contribute financial resources for the establishment of schools, colleges and universities in the areas the group nominally controls. Another provision that was agreed to but never implemented was the creation of Special Regional Security Forces within the ARMM.

According to MILF spokesman Eid Kabalu, unlike the MNLF peace deal, the MILF would not be required lay down its arms or integrate its forces with the Philippine national police and armed forces, but instead would be allowed to create its own security forces to independently protect its homeland areas. Nor would the MILF be reliant on national government level disbursements to keep the local economy afloat.

"We will reverse the situation," Kabalu said. "Instead of asking financial support from the government, we will carefully manage our resources and will give them their part.''

Another key difference would be the geographical size of the BJE, which would be considerably larger than the MNLF's controlled territory. Apart from the present ARMM, the MILF's territory would include more than 1,000 non-Muslim villages in Mindanao. Another significant component of the deal apparently would include the neutral participation of Australia in maintaining the peace and economic development works.

Australia has already provided support to development projects in war-torn areas of Mindanao Island, in a bid to facilitate peace talks between the government and the MILF. Moreover, Australia has requested to join the Malaysian-led International Monitoring Team, a body created by the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) to oversee the implementation of the ceasefire agreement between the military and the rebels.

So far Japan and Canada are the only non-OIC members allowed participate in the IMT.

Japan's role in the IMT has so far been focused on the socio-economic aspect of the peace process, while Canada said it would help to develop governance in the area. Canada currently contributes bilateral assistance to the Philippines, of which 65% is earmarked for development projects in Mindanao.

The most pressing question, of course, is whether, once agreed, such an autonomy deal could hold. One clear complication would be the proposed inclusion of more than a thousand non-Muslim communities into the BJE, including hundreds of Christian communities expected to oppose the deal.

Jesus Sacdalan, governor of the southern province of North Cotabato, recently told reporters that many Muslim-dominated areas in his province are against the inclusion of their communities in an MILF-controlled homeland. Daisy Avance Fuentes, a governor in South Cotabato province, also on Mindanao Island, was quoted in local media saying any agreement reached without public consultation would not have the support of the people.

MILF chief negotiator Mohaqher Iqbal said in an interview that the issue of Islam is entirely internal to Muslim communities and that self-reliance would be the BJE's main objective. "As long as the peace deal addresses the fundamental aspirations of Filipino Muslims on Mindanao Island, we expect normalcy," said Iqbal. That is, of course, on the still very tenuous assumption that the two sides actually come to terms.

Jeoffrey Maitem is a Filipino freelance journalist based in the southern Philippines. His reporting focuses on politics, business, internal conflict, terrorism and religion. He may be reached at jeof.maitem@gmail.com

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