Peace Dances in the Philippines – Asia Times


Peace – of a different sort – comes dropping slow, as per the William Butler Yeats poem The Lake Isle of Innisfree. Were the poet alive today and composing from a southern Philippine island, Yeats’ muse might not be as placid – or introverted – as in the pacific west of Ireland surrounds of his original lyric.

The Philippine island of Mindanao has seen four decades of on-off conflict between the government and Muslim rebels, with the latter fighting for a measure of self-government. The violence has cost an estimated 120,000 lives, facilitated the growth of at least one al-Qaeda-linked terror group and has stopped and started through a number of still-born or half-begotten peace deals.

Thus Wednesday’s joint declaration by President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s government and the rebel Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) that their meeting “ended on a high note with both sides expressing a common desire to restore trust and confidence in addressing major issues in order to pave the way for the early resumption of the stalled peace negotiations”, might not, in the bigger picture, amount to much.

But Arroyo’s meeting on Thursday with US President Barack Obama has raised new speculation that Washington may give the stalled peace process a bigger push. After the country’s Supreme Court rejected the August 2008 Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD) peace deal as unconstitutional, ramped up attacks by hard-line MILF elements – met with counterattacks by the Philippine army – have displaced an estimated 700,000 people over the past year.

The government’s recent decision to suspend military operations and renew talks comes less than four weeks after a series of murky attacks in Mindanao, including a bombing attack on a cathedral in Cotabato that killed 12 people. The attack came in the wake of an explosive blast at the Office of the Ombudsman in Manila, though it’s not clear that the bombings were related.

There are reasons to be both optimistic and cynical about the latest initiative, though both sides have good reason to revive the peace process. Kristian Herbolzheimer, an advisor on peace processes for Conciliation Resources based in Mindanao, told Asia Times Online “the government was paying a high price, both financially and politically, for a policy with no clear outcome”.

Manila has been “embarrassed” by the conflict’s ongoing cycle of human displacement, according to David Gorman, representative to the Center for Humanitarian Dialogue (CHD) in the Philippines. MILF, which has mounted almost 40 attacks this year according to the Armed Forces of the Philippines, regards the stalled MOA-AD as a deal worth revisiting, particularly before Arroyo’s presumed departure from the presidency in 2010.

“Nobody knows what a new president might bring,” said Gorman. “Mindanao has not registered as a metropolitan, national political issue – which has probably helped in getting both parties back to the table.”

Yet stumbling blocks remain. The recent two-day meeting and joint statement issued by the two sides comes after Manila last week unilaterally announced a “suspension of military operations” which MILF reciprocated. However, the government’s drawdown does not cover ongoing police operations against government deemed “rogue” MILF commanders, including Bravo, Umara Kato and a third.

They are seen as the main instigators of the violence that raged after the MOA-AD collapsed last August. After the much-anticipated deal fell through, three MILF commanders went on a rampage through Christian villages in Mindanao, sparking a government counter-attack. The armed exchange displaced hundreds of thousands of civilians, the majority of whom have not been able to return home because of the ongoing hostilities.

The three MILF commanders are deemed by Manila to be outside of the political process, as it relates to the mainstream MILF they released this week’s joint statement with. However, the rebel group’s representatives have protested the three commanders “rogue” status. The recent joint statement, released at a neutral setting in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, merely obliged Manila to “note” MILF concerns at the exclusion of the said commanders from the military slowdown.

Arroyo’s peace process advisor, Avelino Razon Jr, said that actions against the three would continue. That was witnessed late on Thursday with the arrest of Mohammad Jaafar Maguid in Maasim town in the southern Sarangani province. Maguid is allegedly a member of an armed group led by MILF commander Umbra Kato and is suspected of playing a role in three bomb attacks since the MOA-AD’s collapse last year.

Mediating middlemen
To return to the negotiation table, MILF wants more international involvement, according to the joint statement released earlier this week. The rebel group cited the need for “a framework agreement on the establishment of International Contact Group [ICG] of groups of states and non-state organizations to accompany and mobilize international support for the peace process”.

Eugene Martin, an ex-US diplomat and former executive director of the USIP Philippine Facilitation Project, told Asia Times Online that more international involvement would likely help to ease tensions. Martin feels current mediator Malaysia has limited influence over Arroyo’s government, and a high-level international group comprised of state and non-state actors should be formed to spur the peace process.

That’s already happening through isolated initiatives. The Geneva-based Center for Humanitarian Dialogue restarted its mediation work between Manila and MILF back in January. Meanwhile, former British premier Tony Blair’s former chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, and Irish political party Sinn Fein’s Gerry Kelly arrived in Mindanao in early 2009 to share their experience of the lengthy and intricate Northern Ireland peace process. The MILF is believed to view the former Irish Republican Army (IRA) man Kelly as a credible interlocutor.

These visits were followed by delegations from Sudan and the European Union, who “all helped relay messages that otherwise might not have gotten through to each side and contributed greatly to restarting the talks process”, said Gorman.

Meanwhile, the government is readying to reopen talks with the archipelago’s other long-running insurgency led by the Communist New People’s Army (NPA). The NPA marked its 40th anniversary of struggle on March 25 and the group’s first formal talks with the government in five years are slated for August in Norway.

The NPA was blamed for recent roadside bomb attacks that killed two armed forces personnel outside the Mindanao city of Davao earlier this week, just as the government and MILF were readying to meet in Kuala Lumpur. Gorman said the “NPA is very active in the south, but we just do not know what it is doing from a tactical viewpoint”.

US President Barack Obama pressed his government’s desire for an end to the conflict during his meeting with Arroyo at the White House on Thursday. He said the move to begin a reconciliation process in Mindanao was essential to stop a conflict “that we think has the potential to bring peace and stability to a part of the Philippines that has been wracked by unrest for too long”.

By implementing the military drawdown and signing the joint statement, Arroyo no doubt aimed to show Obama progress in the peace process. Since the September 11, 2001, attacks in the US, Washington has pumped around US$300 million into economic development in Mindanao, with much of the money aimed at Muslim communities for education, telecommunications and livelihood projects.

The US military also maintains hundreds of soldiers in the southern Philippines on rotation as part of joint counter-terrorism exercises. “This assistance of the US has gone a long way in helping us to achieve what we have been able to achieve in the peace process in Mindanao, in southern Philippines, and also in our fight against terrorism,” Arroyo said after her meeting with Obama.

Arroyo can now claim that her administration has the political will to push for peace in Mindanao, and counter those who might think that American funds have gone to waste in a region locked in a seemingly endless cycle of conflict. She may also reminded Obama of the urgency in funding peace initiatives in a region where regional terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah, believed to be the perpetrator behind the recent Jakarta hotel terror attacks, is known to be active.

By seeking sustained or increased US support for peace in Mindanao, Arroyo will aim to put Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent assertion at a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Thailand that the “US is back” in Southeast Asia to the test.

And there could be a geopolitical twist to her request: US-Philippine relations hit a low during the early stages of the Iraq War, when Washington felt Manila initially responded feebly. Arroyo responded by signing a number of defense and investment deals with Beijing.

Both MILF and Manila want to revive the MOA-AD as the basis of a final peace deal. Last year the MOA-AD was deemed contrary to the Philippine constitution, with the Supreme Court dismissing it as a “furtive process”, running “contrary to and in excess of the legal authority, and amounts to a whimsical, capricious, oppressive, arbitrary and despotic exercise thereof”.

To hammer out a deal would thus entail amending the constitution, something that Arroyo’s opponents see as a cover for other amendments that would facilitate her retaining power after next year’s elections, possibly as a prime minister rather than president.

Former Arroyo ally and House of Representatives speaker Jose de Venecia reckons the early July spate of attacks in Mindanao was part of a cynical presidential plot to facilitate a declaration of martial law and deferment of the upcoming elections, which would allow Arroyo retain power beyond her current mandate.

The MOA-AD faltered for other reasons last year, including Arroyo’s failure to consult with those opposed to the deal, both in Manila and among southern Catholics living in a proposed autonomous Moro region that the MILF would govern. The Philippine armed forces remain convinced, if let off the leash, that they could win a military solution to the MILF’s threat.

“I have seen no indication [Arroyo] has made any effort to overcome or persuade opponents of any compromise or agreement with the MILF,” said Martin “This is where she got into trouble last year.”

The jury is thus out on whether Arroyo’s moves mark a sincere move to bring peace to Mindanao, or rather represent another gambit in her apparent desire to extend her tenure beyond constitutional term limits. Or, as Yeats wrote in Among the School Children – “How can we know the dancer from the dance?”

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