Mindanao’s Wrecked Peace Deal

By many accounts, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the separatist group in the southern Philippines, should have emerged the victor in what is now widely regarded as a fiasco involving a peace deal with the administration of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. But the ensuing violence of the last week in Mindanao may well have ended any chance for peace in the immediate future.

The peace agreement, called the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain, sought to give far more concessions to the MILF than previous administrations had offered to other Muslim groups. Among these were an expanded Muslim territory and the power and authority to exploit the rich natural resources in these areas as the autonomous Muslim rulers would see fit.

Perhaps more important for the MILF, the agreement was groundbreaking in that it did not mention the Philippine Constitution, the subtext being that the MILF or the would-be rulers of the proposed Bangsamoro Juridical Entity, the name of the expanded Muslim region, would operate outside its framework. This would be a sort of dream come true

for the MILF, whose leaders, ever since the front's inception in the late '70s, had always maintained that any settlement should not be under the terms of the national Constitution.

Ironically, that proved to be the agreement’s undoing, along with the longstanding fear among many in Mindanao that the concessions could threaten Christian communities. Some Christian local officials sought the intercession of the Supreme Court, which issued a restraining order stopping the government and the MILF from signing the accord in Kuala Lumpur on Aug. 6.

What followed pretty much destroyed whatever goodwill the MILF gained in the negotiations and, as a result, now threatens to return Mindanao to a state of war. Two days after the signing was scuttled, hostilities erupted when MILF elements in North Cotabato province under the command of Umbra Kato refused to vacate villages they had earlier occupied, according to the military. The military responded with force, plunging the province and nearby areas into violence and displacing more than 160,000 people from their homes.

Less than a week after that, MILF elements, this time under the leadership of one Commander Bravo, went on a rampage in several towns and villages in the province of Lanao del Norte, shooting civilians, hacking people to death, taking hostages as human shields, and burning down houses. Images of mutilated and burned bodies, including that of a two-year-old girl named Love-Love, flooded the mainstream media, eliciting an outcry from many sectors, including those who had been supportive of the peace process.

The MILF insisted that the attacks were not approved by its central leadership and promised to investigate and punish those responsible. Al Haj Murad, the MILF's chairman, told ABS-CBN television on Wednesday that the peace process remained a paramount consideration.

"We are trying our best to restrain our commanders in order to save the situation. This can be a beginning of the war if not properly handled,” Murad said. “There is still a chance in going back to peace as long as both parties ‑ for us and for the side of the government ‑ will implement utmost restraint in order to hold back the situation."

But to many Filipinos, the damage created by this week's atrocities is such that, in some parts of Mindanao, people are already reliving the horrors of the 1970s, the height of the government's so-called "pacification campaign" against the Moro National Liberation Front, which dominated the Moro movement at that time but has since largely come to terms with the government under a previous autonomy agreement. The MILF broke away from the MNLF in 1981. On Wednesday, pictures emerged of a group of Christian militias, the Ilaga (literally, rats), arming themselves against the MILF. The name is itself frightening as the Ilaga were the often-vicious militias that faced Muslims in battle a generation ago.

Senator Rodolfo Biazon, who was a Marine Corps commander in Mindanao in the 1970s, said Thursday that civilians arming themselves present "a big problem in this country." He recalled that during the insurgency drive in the 1970s, soldiers were taken from other areas to be deployed to Mindanao to pacify civilians who were killing each other. "We do not want a repeat of that," he said, but "that could happen if the government fails to restore peace and order and protect civilians."

In Manila, politicians denounced the MILF and called once again for an "all-out war" against the group, similar to the one launched by then-President Joseph Estrada in 2000. Estrada himself went on national television this week to accuse the Arroyo administration of treating the MILF with kid gloves.

Almost instantly, the other aspect of the peace deal that had riled many Filipinos prior to the attacks – the allegation that the agreement was a Trojan horse designed to keep Arroyo in power beyond 2010 – was nearly forgotten.

Before the attacks, Arroyo and her officials had insisted that the agreement could only be implemented if the Constitution was amended and the form of national government changed from the present centralized system into a federal one. Her critics and allies alike concede that during deliberations by the Philippine Congress on such amendments, no one could be prevented from introducing a proposal to shift to a parliamentary form of government in which Arroyo could be elected prime minister or to abolish the constitutional provision that bans a president from standing for re-election after a single six-year term. Arroyo's term expires in 2010.

The paranoia that greeted the peace deal can be partly explained by the fact that Arroyo, apart from being the most unpopular president since the dictator Ferdinand Marcos, has been plagued with questions over her legitimacy in office since ascending to power after Estrada was overthrown by a military-backed uprising in 2001. Matters were made worse by charges that she stole the 2004 elections through massive cheating – an allegation that prompted three impeachment complaints against her.

Also, many Filipinos still view her as ambitious and power-hungry, someone who would not hesitate to lie about her political plans if it suited her. (Prior to the 2004 elections, she promised Filipinos that she would not run for president. After being named president, she was quoted by Time magazine as saying, "God put me here.")

Her critics believe she wants to amend the Constitution to extend her term, a fear that has had the effect of poisoning even well-meaning campaigns to improve the charter hurriedly passed in 1987 after Marcos was overthrown. Indeed, at least two of the senators who had earlier backed a Senate resolution calling for a federal system withdrew their support, saying they did not want Arroyo to ride on that issue to prolong her stay.

After the attacks, all of these issues have been pushed to the periphery, allowing Arroyo to take the moral high ground and vow to crush the MILF factions that went on a rampage in Mindanao. Arroyo, said political analyst Ramon Casiple of the Institute for Political and Electoral Reforms, "still wants the memorandum of agreement but the pressure is on her to deal forcefully with MILF."

"The MILF leadership, if they are serious about achieving peace in Mindanao, should discipline their ranks and not allow them to wreak havoc on the people of Mindanao," said Aquilino Pimentel Jr., a senator from Mindanao who is the foremost proponent of federalism as a way to end the decades of conflict in the region.

The Lanao atrocities, said Casiple, "exposed the fact that the MILF does not really respect human rights, the niceties of democratic and legal processes, and that they do not yet have the requisites of a responsible political movement and a credible aspirant for state governance.”

For Bobby Tuazon, a political analyst at the Center for People Empowerment in Governance, a Manila think tank, the atrocities were a pity because the MILF "may have gained something out of this fiasco. It was able to press the government to recognize – at least in motherhood principles – the ancestral domain claim of the Bangsamoro people." This, he said, "is a step forward in the MILF's jihad toward self-determination."

For the moment, many sectors, afraid that Mindanao will once again burn, are calling for restraint. "The primacy of the peace process is important," said Julkipli Wadi, an Islamic scholar at the University of the Philippines. "The government cannot afford not to have peace talks in Mindanao."