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Mindanao’s uncertain road to peace

Displaced children join their grandmother in a temporary sheltering area in the southern Philippine town of Datu Piang. Tens of thousands of people have been displaced by the conflict
(Jason Gutierrez/IRIN)

The recent signing of an interim peace agreement between the Philippine government and the country’s largest Muslim insurgent group is fraught with uncertainty, say analysts.
"I think we should temper our enthusiasm," Julkipli Wadi, dean of the Institute of Islamic Studies at the state-run University of the Philippines, who has closely followed the insurgency, told IRIN.

"The main task ahead remains gargantuan, and we have yet to see whether both sides are up to the task."

An estimated 150,000 people have died in one of the region's longest-running insurgencies, which has left the southern mineral-rich island of Mindanao mired in poverty.

Nearly three million people have been forced to flee their homes since 2000, the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) reported, of which 22,000 remain displaced today.

In 2008, more than 700,000 people were displaced after fighting broke out when a peace agreement, which gave the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) control over more than 700 areas in the south they considered their ancestral domain, was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

New peace plan

On 15 October, for the first time since the rebellion began in the early 1970s, MILF chief Murad Ebrahim and his top aides travelled to Manila to sign the "Peace Framework Agreement" in a historic, red carpet ceremony.

The deal, reached after 15 years of talks and often amid deadly clashes, outlines broad, initial plans to create an autonomous region within Mindanao by the end of 2016 to be called Bangsamoro.

Bangsamoro will replace an existing five-province region known as the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) established in 1990, which the government has since described as a "failed experiment": It failed to improve the lot of the region's 4.5 million Muslims.

Under the new agreement, the region will have tax-raising powers, and will receive a share of profits from Mindanao's rich natural resources, while Manila will retain control over defence, and monetary and foreign policy.

Muslim Sharia law will also apply, but only to Muslims and only in relation to civil cases. Criminal cases will be dealt with by normal courts.

Cautious optimism

The agreement has met with cautious optimism from foreign donors led by the UN, the European Union, the USA and Japan, as well as business groups that have long wanted to invest in the southern region with its untapped agricultural and mineral resources. Many believe the region could transform the Philippine economy.

According to the World Bank, more than 30 percent of the country’s 100 million inhabitants live below the poverty line. At the same time, a 2012 book entitled Breakout Nations describes the Philippines as the fifth richest country in the world in terms of natural resources, with the planet’s largest nickel, third largest gold, and fifth largest copper reserves - much of them in the south.

As for the agreement itself, analysts say “the devil is in the detail”. It envisages the setting up of a 15-member Transition Commission (seven from the government and eight from MILF) in mid-November which would tackle specific details over the following months.

Once drawn up, the agreement would be passed to Congress for approval and eventually voted on in a plebiscite in Bangsamoro. So far, no deadlines have been set.

Potential obstacles

Meanwhile, a breakaway faction of a few hundred men called the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) which carried out attacks prior to the announcement of the 15 October agreement - could still sabotage the deal, as could armed groups such as Abu Sayif and former fighters of the Moro National Liberation Front (a precursor to the MILF).

"The question would be, `how do you sustain a new political entity when you have groups with arms who feel sidelined’,” said Wadi of the University of the Philippines. "President Benigno Aquino, who steps down in four years, must also ensure that the succeeding government would follow through."

Disarmament could also prove tricky.

Mohagher Iqbal, MILF’s chief negotiator, said the toughest negotiations would be over the disarmament of the rebels themselves: many had known nothing but warfare most of their adult lives.

"We are used to fighting. We are not used to governance," he said, even as he acknowledged MILF leaders were committed to ending the insurgency by peaceful means. "We know the limited capacity of our people, but our determination will be able to help us."

He noted, however, that the deal was the first sign that "we are moving to normalcy."

Explaining the deal

Analysts agree the road ahead will be "complex and complicated". The region is inhabited by 13 ethno-linguistic groups and as many as 30 indigenous groups in a population of more than 25 million, of which around 4.5 million are Muslim, and 1.2 Lumads (the original inhabitants of Mindanao). The rest of the population are mostly Christian migrant settlers from Luzon and the Visayas islands to the north.

Rebel and government officials have yet to fully explain the agreement to those most affected, including families forced to abandon their homes years ago.

Chief government negotiator Marvic Leonen said the Transition Commission would be conducting consultations in the affected areas to better understand what people want.

"Our only hope is this will lead to a silencing of the guns," said Samsiyah Buayan, 33, who heads a "transition shelter" in the town of Datu Piang housing 95 families.

"We still cannot return to our homes, and our men risk their lives visiting our farms every day to try and plant. We remain fearful of attacks."

She said she and her seven siblings left their village at the height of the fighting in 2008, which left one of her uncles dead and her father paralysed after he had a stroke.

"It has been a hard life for us. A government promise of new houses and a relocation site has not yet been delivered," she said, adding: “Maybe it is fair to say we are skeptical about this new deal."



This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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