Deadly clashes between government forces and autonomy-seeking rebels this week in a historically violent part of the Philippines have raised suspicions of a publicity ploy by a Muslim group that fears losing control over the poor, but resource-rich island of Mindanao.
As businesses in the 800,000-population coastal city of Zamboanga struggled to reopen on Thursday and a firefight broke out in one part of town, observers feared that elements of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) had launched the attack to signal discontent over government negotiations with a group that has similar autonomy goals but competing real interests.
“The Moro National Liberation Front sees its economic interests being challenged,” says Carl Baker, director of programs with US-based think tank Pacific Forum Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). “It’s a typical reconstruction environment where you have a lot of spoilers.”
The early Monday attacks killed six and injured 24, Philippines News Agency reported. Rebels are holding at least 180 hostages while another 5,000 families have fled for safety, local media reported. Business closures have threatened access to food.
Between 300 and 400 rebels occupied parts of Zamboanga on Thursday but were meeting with local officials, a city official told the Monitor. He said the rebels were occupying three of Zamboanga’s 98 districts but that the city as a whole was considered unsafe for visitors.
Decades of conflict
Muslims from nearby territories now that now belong to Malaysia and Indonesia have long claimed authority over Mindanao, putting them in conflict for centuries with the government and mostly Catholic Filipinos who control resources. The conflict has cost about 120,000 lives. Between the death toll and the militant’s occasional habit of grabbing foreign travelers as hostages, Mindanao’s tourism and investment efforts has been hemmed in.
Since signing a landmark peace deal in October 2012, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III’s government has negotiated with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), a different organization, over greater local autonomy for Mindanao. Those talks, expected to end soon in a power-sharing deal, have left out the other rebel group despite its control of assets in Mindanao.
Analysts, local media, and the pro-negotiation rebel group point to what they see as an attention-getting ploy attempting to influence talks in Zamboanga.
“These guys aren’t getting any younger, so if they want to get the attention of the government, they have to do something big,” says Eduardo Araral, a Mindanao native and assistant professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy under the National University of Singapore.
The attacks on Zamboanga, the country’s sixth largest city, by people loyal to MNLF founder Nur Misuari appear “timed for the resumption of talks” between the government and the other rebel group on Tuesday, the Philippine Daily Inquirer newspaper said.
Negotiations on new distribution of power in Mindanao could cut back on what Mr. Misuari’s group controls, Mr. Baker says, explaining why they may prefer not to negotiate. Other analysts attribute the refusal to personal whims of the group’s older leaders.
“The plan to march in formation through the city’s streets and hoist the MNLF flag in front of city hall is the desperate scream of someone who refuses to be sidelined as a spectator to an unfolding process in which he once staked his whole life,” Inquirer columnist Randy David wrote on Thursday, referring to Misuari.
The MILF vowed to press on with 10-days of “marathon” negotiations with the government this week and said Wednesday it hoped the Zamboanga attackers would be held accountable. A similar group attacked Zamboanga three years ago, the city staff person said.
Government and rebel negotiators, who are meeting in Kuala Lumpur, “described the current violence in Mindanao as [the] act of people who do not want the peace process between the [government] and MILF to succeed,” the MILF’s website says.
Misuari criticized last year’s peace accord, claiming that it marginalized his organization’s interests, the website adds. The autonomy deal now in the works will probably favor the MILF over Misuari’s group, the professor says.
“It’s a done deal,” Mr. Araral says. “They’re just ironing out the details of power sharing and resource sharing.”
Philippine officials are still weighing what to do about the attacks on Zamboanga, Mr. Baker says. They may take a pass. “This thing will blow over,” he says. “Nur Misuari isn’t going to be successful in getting attention for his position.”