Philippines: Government-MILF standoff threatens peace bid
|Publisher||Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN)|
|Publication Date||24 November 2010|
|Cite as||Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN), Philippines: Government-MILF standoff threatens peace bid, 24 November 2010, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4cf4f8392.html [accessed 23 July 2014]|
DATU PIANG, 24 November 2010 (IRIN) - Negotiations between the Philippines government and the main Muslim separatist group appear in danger of collapsing barely five months after President Benigno Aquino vowed renewed peace efforts.
Up to 4,000 troops have now been deployed in and around Maguindanao, a province of the southern island of Mindanao where the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) maintains rebel fronts that could launch attacks at any time, the military says.
The 12,000-strong MILF has been fighting for an independent Islamic state in the southern Philippines, a predominantly Catholic country, for decades.
The rebellion has left more than 150,000 dead over the years and delayed development on the mineral-rich island.
Peace talks brokered by Malaysia over the past seven years have been frequently dogged by violence, notably in 2008, after the Supreme Court declared as unconstitutional a proposed government deal that would have given the MILF control over areas claimed as "ancestral domain".
More than 750,000 people were displaced and some 400 died in the violence.
Both sides subsequently agreed to resume negotiations, and Aquino, who took office on 30 June, said among his top priorities was achieving a peace deal with the MILF before his six-year term ended in 2016.
Renewed talks were due this month, but the MILF accused the government of insincerity after it arrested Eduard Guerra, a member of its central command, in September just as both sides were preparing to resume negotiations.
The rebels also warned they would not restart talks if Manila did not retain Malaysian facilitator Othman Razak, whom the government wanted to replace, allegedly because he was biased in favour of the rebels.
In addition, the rebels demanded the government retract a statement by its defence department blaming them for an October bus bombing that left nine people dead, despite police saying it could have been done by an extortion gang.
"These moves on the government part tend to undermine the MILF and the peace process," MILF spokesman Von al Haq told IRIN. "We deny any involvement in the attack, we demand that Mr Guerra be released and we ask that they agree to have Mr Othman retained as a peace facilitator."
MILF forces continue to respect a truce signed by both sides and would remain on the defensive, although any offensive on the part of the military would be met with heavy retaliation, he said.
Jesus Dureza, a former chief peace adviser to the government and an expert on Mindanao issues, said the government had erred in publicly airing dissatisfaction with Othman - particularly since his role had been crucial in previous talks.
"The issue on the replacement of the Malaysian facilitator could have been handled better. Matters like these should have been discussed behind closed doors without embarrassing or putting on the spot persons or institutions involved. Let us not forget that the Malaysians are in this because they have been invited to come in and help."
And while the Malaysian government has yet to make a statement regarding Othman, Manila's negotiator with the MILF, Marvic Leonen, said the government's concerns were valid and should be acted upon by the Malaysian authorities.
"We trust Malaysia will seriously consider our legitimate concerns," he said in a statement.
Leonen accused Othman of attacking the Philippine government by complaining about his replacement to the media, creating "distrust and recriminations" between Manila and the MILF.
"Othman is not indispensable for peace to happen in Mindanao," he said.
Meanwhile, the police and military establishment continue to maintain they would not release Guerra, nor make any apologies for previous statements blaming the MILF for the October bomb attacks.
The standoff could derail a three-year programme to bring basic infrastructure, health services and jobs to areas wracked by conflict that was announced during a "peace summit" in the southern city of Cotabato in September.
The success of the project hinges on the truce holding, making it easier for humanitarian workers to access many remote communities.
[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]