Manila returns to negotiations with MILF as Philippine elections approach

Developing Just Leadership

Our Own Correspondent

Muharram 10, 1425 2004-03-01

South-East Asia

by Our Own Correspondent (South-East Asia, Crescent International Vol. 33, No. 1, Muharram, 1425)

After nearly a year’s delay, Manila and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) will finally begin peace talks this April. This agreement, mediated by Malaysia, was reached on February 19 in Kuala Lumpur.

The Malaysian government has been hosting a series of negotiations between the MILF and president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s government since early last year, when both parties agreed to a ceasefire to make way for peace talks. That ceasefire was violated several times, however, with the armed forces of the Philippines attacking MILF positions and a headhunt for its then leader, Ustad Salamat Hashim, who died on July 13 last year. Buoyed up by Washington’s promises of military aid and special forces, Arroyo had spelt out her terms even before the negotiations opened. But MILF’s lightning retaliatory guerrilla attacks have embarrassed the army, prompting the government to return to negotiations.

The MILF has often complained of Manila’s ceasefire violations, even being prepared to accept the US’s mediation, despite the US’s role in arming the Philippine army. What has prompted Manila again to break off its attacks on the MILF is not clear, but reports indicate that the army has been fighting a losing battle with rising casualties. In clashes in Datu Piang, Maguindanao, for instance, government forces have repeatedly been outmanoeuvred by mujahideen of the MILF.

A ceasefire was officially declared on July 19 last year to pave the way for the resumption of formal negotiations. The latest decision is the result of ‘exploratory’ talks hosted by Malaysia, which were adjourned abruptly when Manila attacked MILF positions on February 11 last year (while the Muslims were celebrating Eid al-Adha). The attacks, the biggest since Arroyo came to power, left more than 400,000 people homeless in central Mindanao and precipitated violence in almost every part of Mindanao. The MILF has since insisted that Manila drop so-called criminal cases against MILF leaders, and withdraw troops from the Buliok complex, a marshy area in Mindanao that is a stronghold of the MILF, as well as in towns in Maguindanao and Cotabato provinces. This demand was finally met on February 17 when Manila began to pull out from these areas.

The more obvious factor is the impending presidential elections, scheduled to be held on May 10. Arroyo, who came to power by a military-backed "elites’ revolution" in January 2001, is desperate to be elected for a six-year term. Going by the Philippines’ past presidential campaigns, a peaceful settlement of the conflict with the Moro mujahideen will boost her chances. Many previous presidents have won on this ‘peace ticket’, but often then ended their terms by becoming known as the "butcher" of such-and-such town or village for violating ceasefires and attacking Muslims.

To add to Arroyo’s worries, the country’s economy has remained largely stagnant, despite some regional improvement. A growing number of kidnap-for-ransom gangs are preying on the business community, so investors are staying away. According to an independent crime-monitoring group, kidnapping in the Philippines rose to a 10-year high in 2003, with at least one victim every three days. A series of high-profile kidnaps forced Arroyo to lift a four-year moratorium on capital punishment and to launch a widely publicised anti-crime campaign. So desperate is Arroyo to project her image ahead of the elections that she even appeared on television on February 21 and paraded a handcuffed kidnap-suspect to emphasise her success.

The war against Muslims seeking self-determination in the Muslim heartlands of the south will remain high on the agenda of every presidential candidate: all are hoping to show the public that the government will be going to the negotiating-table from a position of strength. Non-governmental organisations and community and Church leaders – who are influential in public life and already angered by Arroyo’s military cooperation with the Americans in order to solve domestic issues – have always demanded that the government redirect the country’s resources from fighting the Moros to improving the people’s living standards. Such calls have largely been ignored, except during the months of campaigning before elections.

In the mean time, what will come out of the impending talks is not clear. One thing that is clear, however, is that the MILF may as well give up its hope that the government of Malaysia will support its demand for self-rule in the Muslim heartlands, even if it has called upon Manila to stop attacking Muslims. Last April Najib Abdul Razak, Malaysia’s current deputy prime minister, rejected self-rule for MILF, and urged the Muslims to accept a "limited autonomy". "The whole idea that they [MILF] can form a separate Islamic state is something that we will not support or condone, and we will try to influence other Islamic countries not to support them in that cause. They have to work on a peace agreement within the context of the Philippine constitution," said Najib.

After the experience of the now-defunct Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and of Nur Misuari, its jailed leader, the limited autonomy option may well be the last thing on the MILF fighters’ mind. They may well prefer to fight on if they cannot get what they really want by negotiating for it.

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