What could have been the best chance for a lasting ceasefire in the southern Philippines was dashed last month after hostilities flared up again between government forces and a faction of the fighters belonging to the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), who have been fighting for a separate homeland for Bangsamoro Muslims.
The Malaysian-brokered ceasefire between Manila and MILF was supposed to be formally signed in Kuala Lumpur on August 5. The plan was for an extension of the current ‘autonomous’ territory under the Muslims, the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), which was the result of a peace treaty in 1996 signed by Manila and the Moro National Liberation Front (led by Nur Misuari). But the Supreme Court stopped the signing of the latest Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain pending a hearing, following a petition by some Christian groups charging that the agreement was unconstitutional. On August 21 president Macapagal Arroyo, seizing on the confusion as a pretext, announced thatManila was cancelling the whole deal, although a preliminary agreement had already been signed in July.
Earlier, Manila accused a commander of the MILF, Abdurahman Macapaar, better known as Bravo, of re-igniting the violence in the region, following the indefinite postponement of the peace deal. Bravo denied the accusations, saying that he had only wanted to bring some renegade MILF commanders before the organisation’s court martial for not following orders from the top. Manila, however, had already gone on an all-out offensive in continued violation of the first ceasefire agreement with MILF in 2003. This occurred in spite of Haj Murad Ebrahim, the MILF chief, trying desperately to make the latest peace initiative work by making a plea to his commanders to ignore any provocation.
After signing a ceasefire in 2003, the MILF had been engaged in discussions with Manila to find a “lasting peace” in the conflict-torn region. The conflict has so far cost at least a hundred thousand lives, mostly Muslim civilians, and displaced millions. Last July, a breakthrough in talks was achieved between MILF and Manila, paving the way for the agreement to be signed on August 5.
The ceasefire would not have been the first of its kind in the south-east Asian region; it had been preceded by the successful post-tsunami resolution in Aceh between GAM and Jakarta. The success in Aceh has given hope to warring parties and governments that lasting peace can be possible in the interest of saving human lives and bringing about development, provided that the parties involved are prepared to withdraw some claims and make dignified compromises.
That is what the MILF had hoped to achieve in its negotiations with Manila when it agreed to drop the term “freedom” in a draft accord on ancestral domain, the one issue which had been a sticking point, stalling the talks. The ‘ancestral domain’ refers to the Bangsamoro Muslims’ demand for a Moro homeland, with sufficient control over economic resources and some sort of self-governance with minimal interference from Manila. It covers the whole of the Muslim autonomous region and other Muslim-majority areas such as Zamboanga del Norte, Zamboanga del Sur, Zamboanga Sibugay, North Cotabato, Sultan Kudarat, Sarangani and Palawan in western Philippines. Essentially, had the agreement materialised, the Bangsamoro would have had a federal state with control of vast resources in the agriculture-rich region.
Left with little choice, despite having seen for themselves the countless ceasefire violations on the part of the Philippine army, the Bangsamoro people by and large welcomed the latest development as a potentially realistic solution to the decades-old conflict. Yet it met with opposition from some leaders of MNLF, most notably Nur Misuari, its former leader, who himself signed a widely unpopular peace agreement that achieved only the disbandment of the MNLF itself. Under the 1996 treaty brokered by the Organisation of Islamic Conference, the MNLF was given five economically-backward provinces and one city – not unlike the tiny plot of land given to the Palestinian Authority after the Oslo accord – as part of the autonomous Moro territory (ARMM), although it had earlier expected fourteen provinces and six cities.
Misuari, who feared that the new agreement would put a nail in his political coffin after his falling-out with other MNLF leaders, has even hinted going back to armed struggle, saying that the agreement ignored the basic demand of the Bangsamoro Muslims for independence and decolonisation. Yet it was Misuari who agreed to give up the Bangsamoro demand for independence in exchange for an autonomous government, when he signed the Tripoli Agreement (1976). His decision then gave rise to the creation of MILF the following year under the leadership of the late Salamat Hashim.
One question, however, remains: were the latest overtures and promises to MILF by Manila really believable in the long run? While the agreement may have seemed believable because of its transparent nature and the glare of the international media, whether or not it was sustainable had been highly suspect even before the Supreme Court ruling. Part of the reason for this is the weak leadership in Manila, as well as that of the Philippine army, which is highly unstable. The lack of unity among comrades within the signing parties, such as was seen when some groups within MILF resumed attacks without consulting the leadership, could also threaten any ceasefire, let alone any lasting agreement.
Even before Manila called off the deal, cynics had warned people not to hold their breath. Such a warning was never more clearly expressed than by Jose Ma Sison, the self-exiled communist leader: “I thought immediately that the contents which appeared to recognize and concretize the Bangsamoro’s right to self-determination and ancestral domain were too good and too generous to be true,” said Sison, urging the MILF to exercise caution in its dealings with the government of president Arroyo.
He also warned that the agreement was a game-plan by Washington, as well as regional economic giants Japan and Australia, who wanted to ingratiate themselves with the MILF so that they could exploit the Moro lands’ human and natural resources once a peace agreement had been finalised. “It is obvious that the US has been out to sidle up to and ingratiate itself with the MILF and the Bangsamoro in order to further strengthen its position in exploiting the human and natural resources of the Bangsamoro and deploying US military forces in Mindanao,” Sison said.
Already, hard-hitting rhetoric from government leaders in Manila are helping to set the stage for a bigger offensive, dashing all hopes that any future peace initiative will be ever realised. Blaming the MILF for the attacks by one of its renegade commanders, president Arroyo has vowed to defend “every inch of Philippine territory”. The language of war has found its way back to her lips. This only strengthened speculation that the whole ceasefire programme had been pre-planned by Arroyo in order for her to use emergency powers and declare martial laws because her popularity had been decreasing domestically.
Some Filipino senators have even demanded that the “Erap formula” be used: this refers to the nickname of former president Joseph Estrada, who declared an all-out war which included mass aerial bombardment of Muslim villagers when he was in power, leaving hundreds of villagers dead and hundreds of thousands made refugees.
Whether or not MILF leaders are wise enough to see through such tactics remains to be seen. At the moment, any peace in any form is in tatters, as confirmed by Mohaqher Iqbal, the MILF’s chief negotiator: “We will not renegotiate, it’s already finished.”