Jan 12, 2013

Philippines - Clouds gather over Mindanao peace deal

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MANILA - This month will mark the first 100 days after the historic signing of the Bangsamoro Peace Framework Agreement between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

The agreement has been widely touted as a great leap forward toward ending armed conflict in the region through the creation of a new political entity, known as the Bangsamoro regional government, that will replace the existing five-province Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).

That optimism waned somewhat after the 12,000 strong MILF announced that it would not lay down its arms until the new Bangsamoro entity is officially in place. MILF chairman Al Haj Murad said his rebel group would disarm only after the "appropriate" political conditions were established.

MILF chief negotiator Mohager Iqbal followed that statement by saying that the most difficult phase in the peace process would be the disarmament of rebels, insinuating that the toughest part of the negotiations was yet to come.

"Many [MILF fighters] have known nothing but warfare most of their lives. We are used to fighting. We are not used to governance," Iqbal said. Mindanao's 40-year-old civil war has claimed an estimated 150,000 lives on both sides and resulted in extraordinary displacement and suffering among the civilian population.

Trade and investment officials appointed by President Benigno Aquino earlier announced that the new peace deal will open the way to billions of dollars worth of investment in Mindanao, one of the country's most impoverished yet resource-rich regions. The government has targeted power, palm oil and tourism as priority investment sectors.

Eduardo Malaya, Philippine Ambassador to Malaysia, recently enthused while speaking at the first Mindanao Business Networking event, a post peace pact initiative held in Kuala Lumpur, that "we are collectively announcing to the world that Mindanao is finally open for business."

Foreign investors have nonetheless remained cautious, in part because there are no clear guidelines for how their investments will be protected and secured in historically contested territories. The MILF's recent statements have raised new questions about the viability of the October 15 framework peace deal and will undoubtedly amplify those investor concerns.

So, too, will rising indications that not all MILF-related rebels back the deal. A week after the peace pact was signed, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, an MILF breakaway faction, clashed with the MILF in Maguindanao province, with a handful of fighters on both sides killed and wounded.

The Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), the predecessor to the MILF that signed a ceasefire agreement with the government, assembled 7,000 MNLF members and warned the government of renewed hostilities if the proposed Bangsamoro entity outlined in the framework agreement is implemented.

Other signs of instability have dampened hopes for peace. In December, armed groups operating in western Mindanao abducted a school teacher and eventually demanded a ransom from the government. In Zamboanga City, where some MILF commanders reside, more than 180 people were victims of shooting incidents in 2012.

Academics and analysts now argue that the government rushed the signing of the peace pact without studying fully the implications. Julkipli Wadi, dean of the Institute of Islamic Studies, at the University of the Philippines, asks, " How do you sustain a Bangsamoro Framework entity when there are armed groups who feel sidelined?"

The framework agreement is now also being carefully monitored by foreign development organizations led by the United Nations and Australian Government Overseas Aid Program (AusAID). Australia has said it needs to see the implementing guidelines of the peace framework pact before offering more financial aid. AusAID has been the biggest donor to fund quality education programs in ARMM through its Basic Education Acceleration in Mindanao program.

As questions rise about the framework agreement, Aquino's popularity has started to slip. A January survey conducted by independent polling agency Social Weather Stations showed that his net performance rating had dropped by 12%. The survey was notably conducted nationwide in December 2012 when state media was broadcasting daily positive news stories about the peace deal.

Still, many are hopeful that the government and MILF will not repeat the mistakes of the government's 1996 peace pact with the MNLF. The recent framework agreement with the MILF is widely viewed as a modified formula of that prior deal.

Six years after the signing of the 1996 peace agreement, MNLF fighters bombed a military detachment in Sulu Province and held 70 civilians hostage in Zamboanga City after their leader Nur Misuari lost in the ARMM's gubernatorial elections against fellow MNLF member and medical doctor Farouk Hussein.

Prior to that election, the MNLF's 15-man executive committee controversially ousted Misuari and installed Hussein as the group's new leader. Similar to the 1996 peace pact, the government has launched positive state media releases on the need for peace and development. But while Aquino's spin doctors announce that lasting peace is around the corner, the MILF continues to hold onto their guns while other armed groups bay for war.

Noel T Tarrazona

Noel T Tarrazona is a permanent resident (immigrant) of Canada. He is at present in Mindanao doing humanitarian work. He teaches at the Master Degree in Public Administration Program of Universidad de Zamboanga in Zamboanga City. He can be reached at noeljobstreet@yahoo.com.

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