Muslim Unrest Threatens A Fragile Philippine Peace

The fruits of an agreement signed in Sept. 2, 1996, have eluded many. One rebel group says it is ready to fight on.

One year after a historic peace deal ended 25 years of fighting between Muslim rebels and government forces, the prospect of war hovers on the horizon on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao.

Deep in the jungle, a growing army of discontented Muslim guerrillas threatens to derail the fragile agreement despite billions of dollars flooding into the mineral-rich island from foreign investors.

The second-largest Muslim group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which did not sign the agreement, claims that the peace is a sham that has done nothing to alleviate the poverty of many in their communities. They are threatening to reignite a conflict that reportedly has claimed more than 100,000 lives.

The Sept. 2, 1996, accord between the government and the largest Muslim group, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), was hailed as a "new era of peace and development" by Philippine President Fidel Ramos. It set up a special economic zone to generate investment and made the head of the MNLF, Nur Misuari, governor of the four provinces that already enjoyed autonomy. A clause also allows for the 14 mainly Muslim provinces to join that region under a plebiscite in 1999. In addition, 7,500 former MNLF soldiers are to be integrated into the military and police force.

Since the agreement was signed, Mr. Misuari has toured the world and secured multimillion-dollar pledges of investments. Growth in the region's gross domestic product, which has averaged 4 percent since 1993, is expected to continue.

At present, however, half of the population lives below the poverty line and averages six years of education.

The MILF publicly backs the development plans but says ordinary Muslims have so far not reaped any benefits.

Some 25 miles north of Cotabato City lies the group's main stronghold, Camp Abubakar. Soldiers armed with rocket launchers patrol the border gate. Inside, young guerrillas practice their drills in battered tennis shoes and khakis.

Surrounded by M-16 wielding bodyguards, Al Haj Murad, the group's chief of staff, stands below a sign that warns: "If you want peace be prepared for war."

Formed as an MNLF splinter group in 1978, it claims to have 120,000 armed regulars as well as militias in every community. Mr. Murad claims 6,000 MNLF fighters, disgruntled at the peace, have defected to their side. He claims Muslim rights have been systematically eroded by successive administrations and that thousands have been displaced from their homes by Christian settlers. "We cannot accept the MNLF agreement because it does not address the root causes of our problems. Development has been concentrated outside of Muslim areas. We are still the poorest people."

Despite signing a cease-fire in July, Murad is pessimistic about further peace initiatives being brokered with what he dubs the present "insincere" administration. "If it is necessary to wage armed struggle again, then we are ready for it," he adds.

As the call to prayer drifts across the camp from a nearby mosque, Murad explains he only wishes for "self-determination" for his people in areas where they are in a majority. "Ideally," he continues, "we would want an independent Islamic state."

The MILF has pledged to protect the lifestyle of Christians under such a state, but this reassurance sits uneasily with many members, who also feel "cheated" by the peace agreement.

"My main fear is war.... We wanted to have peace of course, but we were not consulted," says Father Colin Bagaforo, a local priest.

Governor Misuari has just completed a tour of the island on a "peace caravan" designed to drum up support for the 1999 plebiscite and to collect signatures to petition the president to release more funds to the region. Misuari is acutely aware the peace depends upon development and that the MNLF has reserved the right to resume the struggle if it fails.

Despite reeling off an impressive list of potential investments, he admits the majority of Muslims have seen no returns from the pledges. "We cannot eradicate the social and economic problems overnight. The people will have to be patient. There is the possibility there will be a return to unrest ... if we don't get the funding.

"It is now one year on, and not a single road nor a single house has been built for us," Misuari says.

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