'Pocket wars' and peace in Philippines

In the parlance of conflict-weary Mindanao, where guns are plentiful and tempers fray easily, what erupted here recently was a "pocket war."

It began on Jan. 25, when armed raiders backed by insurgents from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) attacked Christian-owned farms during rice harvesting. Filipino troops were sent in, and around 6,000 villagers were displaced and six killed in the fighting that followed. Intermittent attacks between the army, Christian vigilantes, and Muslim fighters have continued since.

International monitors downplayed the fighting. "This is a minor hiccup," says Col. Mustapha Omar, the Malaysian commander of a team monitoring the cease-fire.

But in Mindanao, hiccups have a history of developing into something more. An exchange of artillery near the village last week left 19 Muslim fighters and a Filipino soldier dead. The MILF threatened to abandon its 10-year-old cease-fire and Philippines President Gloria Arroyo responded by ordering the army to show more restraint.

Though MILF leader Al Haj Murad said over the weekend that a breakthrough could be near, analysts warn that if steps aren't taken to address the grievances of local Muslims, the goals of both the Philippines and the US in the region could be compromised.

The US has supported the peace talks because it believes Moro anger fuels terrorist recruitment. But the MILF, which has wholeheartedly engaged in the talks and mellowed considerably from the years when it called for the creation of an Islamic state, needs to show results to its constituents or lose some of them to more radical groups, analysts say. The MILF has been quietly supporting US and Filipino offensives against smaller and more militant Muslim groups, but that could change.

"Without a peace agreement that's implemented in an effective way, you could see a deterioration in pockets of Mindanao that can have a ripple effect on the country and the region," says Astrid Tuminez, a researcher for the US Institute for Peace and an expert on the MILF.

The fertile farmland of Midsayap is part of what the MILF considers the "ancestral homeland" of the Bangsamoro, or Moro people, as the region's Muslims were labeled by Spanish colonizers. They have a distinct culture from that of the dominant north.

MILF leaders are pressing for recognition of this homeland and a formula for self-rule.

But a wave of Christian migration – much of it sponsored by the central government – since the 1940s has cut the proportion of Muslims in Mindanao. In Midsayap, as on much of the island, the choicest land is in the hands of the Christian settlers and their descendants.

"The settlers took advantage of the situation, so many lands are owned by them. We almost became a minority in our homeland," says Eid Kabalu, a spokesman for the MILF.

These grievances have stirred interfaith tensions in Midsayap, which lies close to MILF camps. MILF officials admit some of the recent fighting has been fueled by their members, but say the involvement was unsanctioned. They complain that Christian politicians have refused aid to displaced Muslim villagers.

"The mayor wants to drive away the MILF. If this escalates, it could affect the peace talks," warns Jafaar Ghazali, the group's vice chair of political affairs.

The last round of talks broke down over the "ancestral domain" that would be included in an autonomous region. The government offered one-fifth of the MILF's demand.

Another strain on negotiations is the existence of an earlier peace accord with a rival insurgent group, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), from which the MILF split in the 1970s. The MNLF has chafed at its treatment under its 1996 accord, and the detention of its leader Nur Misuari for leading an uprising in 2001.

Analysts say that the government needs to bring the MNLF into any new peace plan, or they could take up arms again just as the MILF set theirs down. The two groups have argued for years over who is the "real" voice of the Moros.

"The government is a victim of its own success. Now they want to unite the MNLF and MILF, but for many years they just wanted to divide and rule," says Benny Bacani, who runs the Institute for Autonomy and Governance, a public-policy think tank in Cotabato City.

Others say the key to ending the conflict lies not in meeting the piecemeal demands of groups like the MILF, but in providing meaningful political autonomy to the whole region, which would allow it to collect its own taxes, and central government reparations for past injustices.

"What we are trying to solve here is the problem of the Moro people. Not the problem of the MILF or the MNLF," says Abhoud Syed Lingga, executive director of the Institute for Bangsamoro Studies.

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