The Philippine government was due to sign Tuesday a landmark accord with an Islamic rebel group that would create an expanded Muslim homeland on the southern island of Mindanao. But in an unexpected setback, the Philippine Supreme Court on Monday blocked the signing and ordered a court hearing on Aug. 15 into claims that the proposed deal was unconstitutional.
The pact had been expected to pave the way for the two sides to ink a comprehensive peace deal to end a decades-old insurgency that has stunted economic development on resource-rich Mindanao and incubated lethal terrorist networks across Southeast Asia. The eleventh-hour judicial intervention jolted negotiators from both sides, who had traveled to the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur, for Tuesday's signing ceremony.
Opponents had charged that the pact was "ill-advised" and potentially unconstitutional as it involved territorial concessions in Mindanao. Aides to President Gloria Arroyo deny this, saying lawmakers will be asked to legislate on any final legal settlement with the MILF.
The pact on territorial claims would have been the third signed between the two sides since 2003. Following Tuesday's planned signing, negotiators were preparing to start work on a final binding document that could be ready within a year, says Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita. "The national government is doing everything possible to come to a final agreement," he says.
Local Christians protest
The proposed Muslim homeland would have control over the exploitation of minerals and other natural resources within its jurisdiction, according to a draft copy of the accord. Its executives could conduct overseas trade missions. It would also run its own security force, which is designed to absorb the bulk of MILF fighters. They numbered around 11,000 at their peak but have dwindled since a 2001 cease-fire.
Such concessions are bitterly opposed by Christian landowners and politicians who fear land grabs and have petitioned the Supreme Court to block the pact. Thousands of Christians in Zamboanga, a city in southwest Mindanao, rallied on Monday against the deal, Reuters reported.
A wave of government-backed migration since the 1940s has seen Christian settlers acquire land in Mindanao that previously belonged to Muslims.
Tensions over land helped fuel a 1972 uprising by the Moro National Liberation Front that claimed 120,000 lives over four years. In 1977, the MILF broke away from the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) to pursue an explicit Islamic-based agenda, including sending volunteers to Afghanistan to fight Soviet occupation.
Deal may have good ripple effects
For the US government, a durable peace accord would be vindication of its diplomatic and aid initiatives on Mindanao, including a decision after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the US not to designate the MILF as a terrorist group.
In February, US Ambassador Kristie Kenney traveled to Mindanao to meet the MILF's chairman. The US and other major donors have pledged to ramp up aid to sweeten any peace deal.
By crafting a compromise on historic territorial claims, the Philippines can offer a lesson for other countries such as Nepal, Indonesia, and Thailand trying to quell separatist violence, says Steven Rood, country director of the Asia Foundation. "The MILF can provide something of an example to other similar insurgency movements, and the government in Manila can provide an example to other governments trying to keep the [peace] process moving forward," he says.
Many competing interests
Adding to the complexity of the current talks, a 1996 peace deal between the Philippine government and MNLF carved out an autonomous region in Mindanao that covers four provinces.
The MILF wants to absorb that region into a new, larger jurisdiction, subject to local referendums. Some former MNLF leaders have objected to the dilution of their power base.
The MILF claims 712 additional districts on behalf of the Bangsamoro people. Christian politicians object to the creation of these autonomous districts within their provinces.
In recent months, low-level violence has flared in MILF strongholds. MILF leaders deny sanctioning attacks on civilians but warned of rising frustrations within their ranks. That's a pressure tactic the MILF often uses, analysts say.
"The prospect of a return to full-scale war is fairly remote. Neither side can sustain it," says Scott Harrison, executive director of Pacific Strategies and Assessments, a consultancy in Manila.
The peace talks come as Mindanao gears up for elections on Aug. 11 in the existing autonomous region known as the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).
Last week, Ms. Arroyo asked lawmakers to postpone the elections, but met stiff opposition in the Senate. The administration said electing ARMM officials to three-year terms would complicate the creation of a new jurisdiction. MILF leaders have played down the impact on their peace talks.
Separately, Arroyo's opponents in Congress claim that amending the Constitution to cement an MILF peace accord could be used to also extend the president's term that ends in 2010.
The Philippines only allows presidents to hold office for one six-year term. Arroyo took power in 2001 after President Joseph Estrada was forced to step down, then won an election in 2004 that was dogged by fraud complaints.