Two weeks after a controversial peace settlement between the Philippines government and minority Muslim rebels, President Fidel Ramos is still being accused of selling out to Muslim guerrillas.
The deal ended 24 years of war and resulted in the formation of a "Peace and Development Council." But the preliminary agreement to form an autonomous zone in southern Philippines to be controlled by the country's largest Muslim rebel group has proved controversial and angered the area's Christian leaders.
In a two-day tour through the region aimed at allaying the fears of the Christian population and explaining the controversial agreement, President Ramos was greeted with angry protesters and near riots. In Zamboanga last week, riot police held back an unruly crowd, estimated at over 10,000, which tore down the perimeter fence of the Edwin Andrews Air Base and rushed toward Ramos shouting, "No! No! No!" and "Misuari stinks!"
Nur Misuari is the leader of the secessionist Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), the group with which the government forged the deal.
In spite of strenuous explanations by government officials that the council was merely a presidential agency and would not curb the powers of provincial governors and town mayors, Christians in the southern island of Mindanao are in an uproar.
The pact calls for 14 provinces and nine cities on the islands of Mindanao and Palawan to be covered by the council in an interim arrangement for three years. A plebiscite to be held later will determine the actual geographical limits of a Muslim autonomous government.
Christian leaders, angered that they weren't consulted on the terms of the agreement, charge that the Muslim-led council is against the Constitution, and is tantamount to handing over 23 percent of the country, 8.6 million people, to the rebels. Just over 2 million Muslims live in this area.
The Christian leaders have vowed to challenge the pact in the Supreme Court and some have threatened violence.
Congresswoman Daisy Fuentes, who represents South Cotabato Province, said: "There is paranoia among the Christian communities ... They came to me and I tell them that we have to use all peaceful means. Let's petition."
Such statements and the banners greeting Ramos betray the deep distrust between Christian and Muslim Filipinos, who have been at war for 500 years, since the Spaniards colonized the Philippines and turned this archipelago into a bastion of Roman Catholicism in Asia. Although Muslims regard Mindanao as their ancestral homeland, decades of migration by Christians have turned the area into a predominantly Christian region. The Muslims fought off the Spanish and American colonizers and independent Philippine governments, all of which never succeeded in fully subjugating them. The conflict became a full-blown war in 1972 when the MNLF under Mr. Misuari waged a secessionist battle, bankrolled by oil money of Libya's Muammar Qaddafi
More than 50,000 people on both sides were killed in the war. By the time the war wound down in the mid-1980s, the conflict sputtered on in sporadic clashes. Misuari and other Muslim rebel leaders directed the conflict from exile in Libya, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia.
The rebels later splintered into three groups, resulting in more radical and fundamentalist groups: the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the Abu Sayyaf.
Earlier attempts to establish an autonomous government failed to win MNLF support and the Tripoli Agreement of 1976, brokered by Mr. Qaddafi, was stillborn.
When Ramos assumed the presidency in 1993, he mounted a peace offensive to bring all rebel groups to the negotiation table. Misuari, analysts say, seems to be tired of war and realizes that his backers desire peace too.
Before he headed for Zamboanga, Ramos gave a TV address in which he urged Filipino Christians to drop their "garrison mentality" toward the Muslims. "I know there are anxieties.... But we'll never triumph over conflict if we insist on garrisoning ourselves against each other," he said.
But the lack of information on the actual powers of the council triggered a knee-jerk reaction, says Amando Doronila, a respected newspaper commentator. He echoed the sentiments of the Manila-based (largely Christian) media, saying, "Like the peace accords in Palestine or Bosnia, it is imperfect. But you got to start somewhere. It should be given a chance to work."
The peace council is a soft transition to an autonomous government. This could be a critical period for the Muslim leaders to prove themselves capable of developing the economy. "Reaching a final agreement in this peace process and signing the final accord, to me, is just one phase of a much larger process," Misuari said.
Officials say Ramos has bent over backward to accommodate the MNLF and has promised to appoint Muslims to posts in the Supreme Court and Cabinet.