Long-elusive Philippines peace accord reflects exhaustion
With 150,000 dead from decades of religious and ethnic fighting and no family in the southern Philippines free of fear they could be the next slain, Filipinos and their fractious leaders have run out of energy for rebellion.
A road map to peace unveiled this week by the Philippine government and the main rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, has been hailed by Muslims and Catholics alike as a glimmer of hope that an end is in sight to bloody clashes that have racked the islands since the 1960s. The deal also eases Western concern that foreign Islamic militants could be drawn to remote Philippine jungle camps, already the scene of kidnappings and beheadings.
Under the accord to be signed Sunday in Manila, the rebels would eventually enjoy self-rule over a yet-to-be-defined territorial entity to be called Bangsamoro, or Moro Nation. They would also have more control over the region's rich tropical forests and oil and gas reserves.
The agreement lays out a four-year transition to autonomy for the southern islands of Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago. But huge hurdles remain to be cleared: How does the government integrate Islamic rebels into the mainly Catholic ranks of the national armed forces? Which areas of the ethnically diverse south will be included in the new state? Will sharia law be invoked in Bangsamoro, and can it realistically be applied only to the Muslim population, as proposed during the internationally mediated negotiations?
The most perplexing question may be how police and soldiers can disarm the legions of gun-toting rebels and resisters who constitute the only law in much of the south's remote mountains and jungles.
Having weathered dictatorship, corruption and conflict for much of the 66 years they have been independent, Filipinos are eager to answer those daunting questions, relief officials and analysts say.
The agreement reached this week is less the product of strategic give-and-take during years of negotiations than a white flag of surrender to exhaustion sent up by both the government and the rebels. That is the view of Albert Santoli, president of the Asia America Initiative that for more than a decade has provided relief to the tens of thousands of Filipinos who have fled the fighting.
"People are tired of killing each other. They're tired of never knowing if they're going to have to flee their homes," Santoli said. He pointed to the relative harmony in refugee camps that shelter internally displaced Muslims and Christians together as grounds for confidence that Filipinos are eager to work for peace.
Although he views a 2016 target for creating Bangsamoro as unrealistic, Santoli said the deadline may motivate young Filipinos to take advantage of the apparent sincerity of President Benigno Aquino III to broker an end to the fighting.
"The hope is that if everyone is committed to the process that things will get better, that they'll be able to create an attitude of cooperation among youth," Santoli said. "But in practical terms, it will take a generation."
Michael Buehler, Philippines expert for the Asia Society and a political science professor at Northern Illinois University, sees the potential for success in this latest peace effort of the post-World War II era.
"Mindanao is one of the most resource-rich parts of the country," which is its blessing and its curse, Buehler said. The decades of fighting have prevented the south from tapping its valuable tropical woods, minerals and fuels. They have also provided cover for backdoor deals between business interests in the north and southern provincial kingpins who often have sway over the rebels in their fiefdoms.
"Very often Manila has had a divide-and-rule approach to problems in the south," Buehler said. If autonomy looks to be getting in the way of deals cut on the sidelines of the conflict, "that could provide incentive for them to undermine the peace plan," Buehler said of the de facto rural power brokers unlikely to be eager to step aside for Islamic rebel leaders.
Still, the new plan is seen as a serious effort to integrate Muslims who have long felt like outsiders in the Catholic-dominated state, said Gerard Finin, a senior fellow at Honolulu's East West Center who has traveled and worked in the Philippines since the 1970s.
He sees two major challenges ahead, though. The mediators -- which include the United States, Europe, Malaysia and other Muslim nations -- must strive to keep the rebels unified behind the Moro Islamic Liberation Front leaders during the difficult negotiations ahead. And all must remain vigilant, Finin said, in protecting any new Bangsamoro government from being undermined by the multitude of political, economic and tribal conflicts of interest fueling the violence.
"There are still many big questions to be answered," Finin said. "But things are looking better today than they have for some time."
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Photo: Moro Islamic Liberation Front rebels patrol inside their base at Camp Darapan on the island of Mindanao in 2011. The rebels and other unauthorized gunmen would be disarmed under a peace plan to be signed Sunday in Manila. Credit: Ted Aljibe / AFP/Getty Images