Philippine talks have promise

Even as a hostage crisis drags on, Manila deals with Muslims who have a real political agenda.

Lt. Col. Roger Salvador doesn't have to look far to find his enemy. From the thatched roof shack that's served as his office for the past six months, he has a clear view of the lush, jungle-clad mountains of Mindanao that are home to the guerrillas of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

"They're out there somewhere," says the colonel, gesturing through the teeming tropical rain toward the palm trees a few hundred yards away. "We've been observing some major MILF movements, consolidating just adjacent to this area. That would indicate they're still preparing, maybe for an offensive."

The MILF remains such a potent foe - far more powerful than the high-profile, renegade Abu Sayyaf guerrillas currently holding hostages on Basilan, just to the south of Mindanao - that President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo's government is returning to the negotiating table. The talks begin tomorrow in the Libyan capital, Tripoli, in another attempt to resolve an armed insurgency that has cost an estimated 120,000 lives over the past 30 years.

In 1996, the government of the Philippines signed a peace accord with the separatist Moro National Liberation Front; both the MILF and the Abu Sayyaf are considered splinter groups of the MNLF. Today, while the military has said the MILF has aided the Abu Sayyaf, the MILF maintains that it condemns the smaller organization, suggesting that the bandit group's brutal tactics are the desperate acts of a community driven to desperation by long years of government oppression.

The task facing the negotiators is a daunting one. Time and again, failure has awaited efforts to reconcile Muslim Mindanao's demand for secession from a nation that is predominantly Christian, and Manila's determination to maintain its sovereignty over the region.

Last year, Col. Salvador's 64th Infantry Battalion was part of the government offensive that forced the MILF to abandon its stronghold of Camp Abu Bakar, a sprawling area of countryside in the southern Philippines. MILF leaders, including the group's chief, Hashim Salamat, had to flee. But the guerrillas themselves simply melted away into the forest. Now, Salvador admits ruefully that the Army's much-acclaimed victory was a hollow one.

"We don't think that we have annihilated totally the MILF. Maybe we have just scared them away," the colonel says. While an informal cease-fire holds, violations are reported almost daily.

Last year's surge in hostilities scarcely improved the atmosphere. The all-out offensive launched by then-president Joseph Estrada was hugely popular among the Christian-settler population in Mindanao, who today far outnumber the island's indigenous Muslims. The Rev. Eliseo Mercado, a Mindanao-based Jesuit priest and academic closely involved in the peace process, says the Estrada policy fanned the flames of sectarian discord.

"The all-out war really destroyed the bridges of trust and confidence between Muslims and Christians," he says. "People have become polarized again according to their beliefs."

Back in Camp Abu Bakar, the Army is now trying to undo the damage, and win back the confidence of a civilian population. Troops are helping build new stilt houses, complete with corrugated iron roofs, for some of the thousands of people who saw their villages obliterated in the Army bombardment.

Only a few of the fragile little structures have been occupied so far. Bunga Buliok, together with her husband and five children, returned in April after spending more than a year in evacuation centers. Her new house stands just yards from the burned ruins of the one the family formerly occupied. "It's very hard," she says. "We can harvest our coconuts, but we can't work our rice paddy because our buffalo have disappeared."

Elsewhere, Army bulldozers are busily leveling the muddy, rutted tracks that meander through Camp Abu Bakar. A mosque devastated by the assault on a nearby rebel position has been painstakingly rebuilt.

Such gestures are meant to win over Muslim hearts and minds, and convey the message that Manila represents more than a conquering army. But it may be too little, too late. Centuries of oppression and neglect have left Muslim parts of Mindanao the most impoverished and destitute areas of the country. Christian farmers have gobbled up huge swaths of agricultural land previously owned by Muslims. Illiteracy and unemployment are rife.

Like her predecessors, President Arroyo has pledged to bring greater economic development. But attorney Lanang Ali, one of the MILF's senior negotiators in the talks, says the problem has gone beyond mere economics.

"The only solution here is a negotiated political settlement of this problem," he says. "The [Muslim] people here in Mindanao should be asked in a referendum which government they want to establish for themselves...."

The MILF position is complicated by a division within its ranks. Some hardliners remain committed to the group's longstanding objective: a separate Islamic state covering parts of Mindanao and other smaller islands where Muslims are in a majority. Other leaders seem to concede that such an ambition is unrealistic, and that greater autonomy - including the introduction of sharia, Islamic holy law - would be an acceptable compromise.

Fr. Mercado believes it is this moderate stance, which is on the rise, fueling hopes for progress in Tripoli. "The independent Islamic state is an easy slogan. And I believe there are 1,001 ways to respond to this aspiration," he says.

The stance of the government has also given rise to optimism. For example, Ms. Arroyo's administration has conceded the MILF's demand to open the talks on neutral territory. Libya was an obvious choice because of its close involvement in previous efforts to resolve the Mindanao problem.

Gunter Hecker, country director for the Asian Development Bank, says that for the first time, there's a real chance of a breakthrough in a conflict that has bedeviled the Philippines since the Spanish conquered Mindanao 400 years ago. "Everybody knows war is not the solution. This government senses that there is a chance for peace. So far, it seems good progress is being made."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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