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    Southeast Asia
     Oct 16, 2012

Militants threaten Manila peace deal
By Jacob Zenn

A framework agreement formally signed on Monday by the Philippine government and rebel Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) aims to end a decades-long conflict through the establishment of a new autonomous political entity known as Bangsamoro on the southern island of Mindanao. Despite widespread optimism both at home and abroad about the agreement's peace prospects, a number of outstanding issues still mitigate against the deal's long-term success.

Those spoilers include the potential for radical MILF fighters to defect from the leadership who brokered the deal and continue their armed struggle; a resurgent Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), which believes its own peace agreement has been undermined by the deal and has threatened to resume hostilities; the breakaway Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), who under their radical leader Ameril Kato have threatened to


carry out attacks on civilians if the agreement passes; and Abu Sayyaf, the country's al-Qaeda-inspired Islamist insurgency which appears to have launched a new international recruitment drive.

The framework agreement is the result of over 15 years of negotiations and will be implemented by a 15-member Transition Commission. No timetable has been announced for disarming the MILF's estimated 11,000 foot soldiers. The deal notably falls short of the MILF's central demand at the time of its founding, which called for the creation of an independent Muslim state for Mindanao's ethnic Moro Muslims. The MILF broke away from the MNLF in the 1970s when the MNLF dropped the demand for an independent state and accepted a semi-autonomous region.

Through a 1989 plebiscite, the autonomous area became known as the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), which now comprises areas of Maguindanao and Lanao del Sur provinces on mainland Mindanao and Sulu and Tawi Tawi in the Sulu Archipelago. Bangsamoro, the political entity that will replace the ARMM under the framework agreement, will comprise roughly the same territory as the current ARMM and will have a population of about four million people in six municipalities in Lanao del Norte, six municipalities in North Cotabato, and the cities of Cotabato and Isabela in Basilan.

This territorial jurisdiction is much smaller than what was negotiated in 2008, when the government and the MILF planned to sign a so-called Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOAAD). The MOAAD, which was ruled by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional and thus never implemented, would have also included large areas of Palawan and Christian-majority areas of North Cotabato and Zamboanga City in Mindanao.

President Benigno Aquino has promised that the political interests that torpedoed the MOAAD deal will not interfere with the implementation of the framework agreement. For Aquino, the deal promises to solidify his legacy as not only as a reformer but also a peacemaker. The deal is intended to be finalized in 2016, the same year that his six-year term ends. Aquino highlighted the economic benefits that the agreement will bring to Mindanao when he said that "the hands that once held rifles will be put to use tilling land, selling produce, manning work stations and opening doorways of opportunity".

A US intelligence assessment made public in 2011 estimates that Mindanao has an estimated US$1 trillion in untapped mineral deposits but companies have been unable to exploit the resources due to the numerous insurgencies on the restive island. Persian Gulf-based companies from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have expressed interest in agricultural investments in Mindanao but have also shied away due to the political risks.

The framework agreement is acceptable to Manila in part because the Bangsamoro area will not be as large as the one proposed in 2008 and all powers that are typically the exclusive sovereign powers of the state, such as foreign policy and defense, will remain with the government. Bangsamoro will have powers including taxation and the "right to strengthen Islamic Courts," which will be applicable only to Muslims.

The deal has also been welcomed by the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). If implemented as planned, it will allow the military to devote more resources to territorial defense rather than internal security. The deal comes at a time of heightened tensions between the Philippines and China over territorial rights in the South China Sea, which the Philippines now officially refers to as the West Philippine Sea. The day after the agreement was announced on October 8, American and Philippine Marines began joint exercises in Subic Bay, though officially the exercises were unrelated to the territorial disputes with China.

Sibling rebel rivalry
Now that the MILF has settled for virtually the same terms that the MNLF agreed to with the initial creation of the ARMM, MNLF leaders reportedly see its peace agreement as effectively abrogated. Habib Mujahab Hashim, chairman of the MNLF's Islamic Command Council, said if the Aquino administration proceeds with the signing of the framework agreement with the MILF, then the MNLF will likely return to armed struggle.

The MNLF never disarmed after the 1996 peace agreement it signed with the government and has now reportedly begun amassing fighters in Zamboanga del Sur, possibly in a show of force to begin to win recruits from among MILF fighters and the local population who disapprove of the framework agreement deal. With many of the MILF's fighters expected to join the Philippines National Police (PNP), the MNLF may win back MILF fighters who are not satisfied with a Bangsamoro that is not a fully autonomous state.

It remains unclear, however, whether MNLF leader Nur Misuari, who also views the framework agreement as a violation of the MNLF's peace agreement with the government, will advocate for a return to armed conflict with the government after more than a decade of relative peace.

The two other Muslim armed groups in Mindanao, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) and Abu Sayyaf, have categorically rejected the framework agreement and may also seek to lure in disaffected fighters from the MILF - just as the MILF lured disaffected fighters from the MNLF after the MNLF's 1996 peace agreement.

Ameril Umbra Kato, a former commander of the MILF's 105th Base Command, was the mastermind behind attacks on civilians in North Cotabato in 2008 when the MOAAD was about to be signed. He is now the leader of the BIFF, which he founded in late 2010 along with 300 MILF fighters who rejected the MILF's then seemingly futile start-and-stop negotiations with the government. Kato's forces most recently attacked the army in August.

BIFF spokesman Abu Misri Mama, who over the weekend characterized the framework agreement as a "surrender" has suggested that Kato will carry out new attacks in response to the deal. "In time we will launch our harassment, we are already near to our enemies," Misri Mama recently said. "Civilians, whether Muslims, Christians or indigenous peoples, are residing near military detachments or headquarters. They can start to evacuate so they will not be hurt in the crossfire."

Kato is believed by some security analysts to have 1,000 fighters under his command. Photos and reports coming from his camp in Maguindanao, however, claim that he is so weak from illness that he can barely walk and talk, let alone lead a fighting force. In December 2011, it was rumored that he had died, though he likely had suffered from a debilitating stroke. There is no known leader prepared to take over the leadership of the BIFF in the event of Kato's passing, which may result in the BIFF either becoming defunct or its fighters joining with disaffected MILF fighters in a resurgent MNLF.

Abu Sayyaf may also receive disaffected MILF or stray BIFF fighters. Abu Sayyaf was originally comprised of leading MNLF fighters who felt betrayed by the MNLF's 1996 peace agreement with the government. The rebel group renowned for its kidnapping-for-ransom is situated in remote jungle areas of Basilan and carries out sporadic attacks on government forces and corporations. After a series of strikes against its top leaders, the Al Qadea-linked group is believed to be in dire need of new fighters. Some estimates but there numbers at a record low of around 350.

Unable to recruit new members locally, Abu Sayyaf has apparently recently taken in members of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and possibly even assumed a new name. On October 2, a militant named Abu Atikah al-Muhajir posted photographs to a jihadist website purporting to show two "lions of the Arabian Peninsula" with a group of other Islamist militants in the southern Philippines with the typical black and white al-Qaeda flag in the background. He claimed that he was a "mujahideen brother in the Tawhid and Jihad Group in the Land of the Philippines of Pride" without referring to Abu Sayyaf by name.

With Abu Sayyaf, BIFF, MNLF and possibly a number of disaffected MILF fighters all opposed to the MILF's framework agreement, and with each group entering significant transitions, it is not clear that the widely lauded deal will lead to immediate or lasting peace. Between now and 2016, when the agreement is intended to be finalized, a number of internal and external factors could derail the agreement. Indeed, various on-the-ground realities suggest the road to peace is still as complex as ever.

Jacob Zenn is a Washington DC-based international affairs analyst and legal advisor who specializes in the analysis of insurgent groups. He can be contacted at zopensource123@gmail.com.

(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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