The peace talks, which resumed last month, are up against a tough political deadline, as President Gloria Arroyo prepares to step down in July. Observers say the two sides must also grapple with the fallout from a controversial 2008 territorial agreement that the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional, sparking fierce clashes in central Mindanao that displaced hundreds of thousands of civilians.
Yet for all that, the talks hold out hope of a powersharing deal on the troubled island.
The latest cease-fire between the MILF and the Philippine government, signed last July, appears to be holding. A Malaysian-led monitoring team is expected to return as early as next month and will have an additional mandate to protect civilians while also watching for violations of the truce. For its part, the government has agreed not to pursue three MILF commanders who led the 2008 attacks and face criminal charges.
Ms. Arroyo has vowed to push for a final peace accord with the MILF that would be a legacy for her presidency, which began in 2001. Western diplomats and peace activists say this timetable for negotiations – begun in 2002 – is overly ambitious, given the divisions between negotiators on critical issues. “That would be fine for an administration that has time to go through all the steps. But this administration doesn’t,” says a Western diplomat in Manila.
A more likely outcome is a peace process that leaves the heavy lifting on constitutional issues to the next administration. The elections will be held in May. So far, the presidential front-runners have offered few specifics on Mindanao, though former president Joseph Estrada has vowed a return to anti-MILF military operations if he’s elected, an outcome that most analysts discount.
Inviting outside observers
One innovation in the revived talks is the formation of an international contact group to observe and advise the two sides. The group brings together Britain, Japan, Turkey, and four nongovernmental organizations, providing a degree of continuity and persuasion, though its scope is limited.
The MILF had wanted to designate friendly countries as international guarantors, but the government resisted this idea, says Abhoud Syed Lingga, who heads the Institute for Bangsamoro Studies in Cotabato. He argues that the key to a deal lies in Manila, as the MILF has already laid out its cards on devolving power to Muslim-majority areas. “It all depends on the president. It all comes down to political will,” he says.
The resumption of the peace process is supported by the US, which isn’t part of the contact group. While US Special Forces are helping Philippine troops to hunt down Islamist militants in parts of Mindanao, the US doesn’t consider the MILF to be terrorists. Indeed, senior US diplomats have traveled here to meet MILF leaders. This diplomacy is backed by increased development aid: 60 percent of US assistance to the Philippines goes to Mindanao.
Conflict stretches back decades
Since the 1970s, the MILF has fought for a separate homeland on an island that was once overwhelmingly Muslim but is now divided between
Muslims and Christians, who form the majority in the Philippines. The group has about 15,000 combatants and continues to train and recruit.
In the 1990s, MILF fighters returning from Afghanistan opened their training camps to foreign militants, making Mindanao a regional terrorist hub. Those foreign links have mostly been severed, though not by all MILF base commanders, according to Philippine and US military officials.
In 2008, after six years of slow progress, peace negotiators agreed on the boundaries of a self-ruled “Bangsamoro” territory in Mindanao that the MILF had sought. But opposition flared in local Christian communities and the Supreme Court ruled the agreement as unconstitutional, a setback that quickly sank the peace talks.
Last year's cease-fire was reached after a troubling attack here: MILF bombers were behind the bombing of Cotabato’s Roman Catholic cathedral, says Army spokesman Col. Jonathan Ponce. Five people died and another 29 were injured in the attack. But Ponce said security forces would not pursue MILF commanders involved now that the group has entered peace talks.
The MILF hasn’t dropped its territorial claim but is prepared to put it aside while negotiators work on other points, says MILF spokesman Eid Kabalu. “It remains as the basis for pursuing talks. That’s why the MILF has agreed not to touch the agreement,” he says.
Diplomats say the government must do a better job of presenting the case for powersharing in Mindanao if it wants to reach a final deal. But ceding to an autonomous region powers that are deemed national rights, such as control of mineral and coastlines, would require constitutional amendments.