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    Southeast Asia
     Aug 25, 2011

New hope, new fear for Mindanao
By Carlos H Conde

MANILA - Four days after President Benigno Aquino met in Tokyo with leaders of the rebel Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the main Muslim separatist group in the Philippines, a series of firefights between the rebel group and one of its breakaway factions broke out in the southern Philippines, killing at least 14 people and displacing thousands from their homes.

The violence dampened the optimism that was raised by the August 4 secret meeting between Aquino and Al Haj Murad Ibrahim, the MILF's chairman. The meeting was significant as it was rare for a Philippine head of state to meet with the leader of a rebel group before the signing of any official peace accord. The men talked for nearly two hours at a hotel near Narita airport in Japan, giving a significant boost to the until now stalled peace

process. Government officials said it was Aquino who sought the meeting.

The fighting left no doubt among many Filipinos that the conflict in the southern island of Mindanao will not be resolved easily. Now more than ever, analysts say, the government needs to demonstrate a willingness to offer a sincere and comprehensive solution, if only to avoid a repeat in previous negotiations in which peace initiatives were undermined by factionalism. Indeed, the MILF was born of an internal split when rebels led by Hashim Salamat broke away from the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) in 1977.

"The fighting in recent days underscores the very delicate nature of this whole process," said Julkipli Wadi, dean of the Institute of Islamic Studies at the University of the Philippines. "The government should take this matter seriously. Whatever agreement that will come out of the peace negotiations should be comprehensive. Otherwise, the rebels will revert to separatism" and those who are against the MILF might unite to form a new rebel group, Wadi said.

On Monday, during the resumption of formal negotiations in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, the government peace panel presented its counter-proposal to the MILF's draft "comprehensive agreement". Marvic Leonen, the chief government negotiator, said the government's proposal will contain a formula for a comprehensive and lasting peace in Mindanao and seek to change historical impressions among Muslim Filipinos, many of whom have long complained of dispossession and marginalization by the Christian-dominated central government in Manila.

During his speech at the opening of talks, Leonen described the government's counter-proposal as a "work in progress" that is "honestly different" from the MILF's peace pitch. "I would rather that the proposals be different: honestly different. It is only then that the issues that truly matter to both sides can be given more space at this negotiating table," Leonen said. "Both have agreed that the implementation of any agreement should happen within the current administration. Both agreed to fast track the negotiations."

In the recent fighting, MILF forces fought with former members who broke away after MILF leaders signed an earlier Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD) which would have paved the way for a final compact on the conflict. This faction opposed the agreement, arguing that it fell short of the rebel group's long held aspiration of a separate state for Filipino Muslims. The MILF has been waging a secessionist war since 1977, but since the late 1990s has been open to a negotiated political settlement with the government.

That Aquino and Murad met on August 4 was not a coincidence. It was the same day in 2008 that the Philippine Supreme Court controversially ruled for a restraining order on the yet-to-be-signed MOA-AD and later ruled that terms of the agreement violated the constitution. The annulment raised howls from the MILF and praise from nationalists who feared a dismemberment of the republic. A new round of armed hostilities between the government and MILF erupted soon after the initial Supreme Court ruling, leaving 300 dead and 600,000 internally displaced.

Substate solution
Mohagher Iqbal, the head of the MILF peace panel, said in a phone interview last week that the Tokyo meeting was one of the most significant steps undertaken so far by both sides. "It signifies that the two leaders are really dead-set on pursuing the negotiations," Iqbal said. The MILF's new "Comprehensive Compact" proposal, first aired in September 2010, aims to create a "substate" for ethnic Moro Muslims. Similar to federal states in the United States, the proposed substate would have a large degree of autonomy but defer to Manila on matters of national defense and foreign affairs, among other centrally controlled areas.

A substate, Iqbal said, would be no different from a federal state but unlike the government's previous agreement with the MNLF, whose forces were integrated into the mainstream government, the MILF will insist on "an equal relationship" with the government where it controls its own territory and runs its own affairs.

The only question now is how to make sure that the substate solution will not go the way of the annulled MOA-AD. There seems to be no debate that the only way to legally create the MILF's proposed substate would be through an amendment to the constitution. While recognizing Aquino's sincerity, the MILF side is still skeptical that the president has the political will to initiate such an amendment, which has been unpopular with nationalist groups in the past.

Although the president's political party controls a majority in the Philippine Congress, it has not made any determined effort yet to push for the necessary constitutional amendments to make the sub-state plan legally viable.

"The problem with the Philippine government, beginning with the one led by the president's mother, is it looks at the 1987 constitution as sacred," Iqbal said, referring to Corazon Aquino, whose revolutionary government after the fall of Ferdinand Marcos drafted the present constitution.

Legal experts also have their doubts. The substate proposal "seems like a rehash of the annulled MOA-AD, which is bound to violate the existing constitution," said Harry Roque, a professor of constitutional law at the University of the Philippines, referring to the ancestral domain agreement.

"The president has the political capital, the popularity and the clout to push for amendments," Wadi said. "But we're not sure yet if the president is willing to take the cha-cha, perhaps in deference to his mother," the professor said, referring to "charter change." But, as the Tokyo meeting has shown, "he did take the first step for peace. I hope he follows it with another step, and then another."

Bong Montesa, a legal adviser to the government peace panel during the time of president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, believes that "there is no substantial difference between the Comprehensive Compact, the MOA-AD (Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain) and other similar agreements."

These proposals, he said, "all flow from a particular view of what the problem is and how it can be solved. For the MILF, and they have been fairly consistent, the problem is political - the illegal and unjust incorporation of the [Moro] people into the Philippine state. The solution therefore is also political - the exercise of self-determination by the [Moro] people."

He called the MILF's strategy as "one of incrementalism and pragmatism". "While proposals may vary in some details from time to time, the end goals have always been the same: a political agreement that will fundamentally reshape the present relationship between the Filipino people and the Moro people," Montesa said.

It is too early to say if these developments will end the decades-old conflict in Mindanao, as the rebellion by MILF combatants against a previous government deal has made clear. And it is probably too early in the negotiations to say for sure that the MILF has dropped definitively its calls for a separate Moro state.

"What is not separatist is the draft they offered to the Philippine government. Independence, however, remains to be part of its options," predicted former government negotiator Montesa. "Being separatist or not cannot be frozen in time. The MILF can always go back to a call for independence if the current negotiations do not gain headway or if its constituencies and commanders on the ground change their minds."

Carlos H Conde is the freelance correspondent in Manila for The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune. He may be reached at chconde@gmail.com or at www.facebook.com/carlosconde.ph

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