The rejection of the Supreme Court of the Philippines of a government pact with Muslim militants has delivered another setback to efforts to end a four-decades long insurgency in the south.
The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) said Wednesday it would now appeal to the international community before considering more talks with Manila. Commentators in the Philippines urged a continuation of the peace process, but some also characterized Tuesday's ruling as a victory for the rule of law.
The peace process was already in tatters after violence since August has left 100 dead and more than half a million people displaced.
On Aug. 4, the government inked a deal with the MILF that would expand the Muslim autonomous area in the south in return for peace. But Roman Catholic communities protested the inclusion of villages with significant Catholic populations in the planned area, and the Supreme Court quickly issued an injunction against the agreement.
That prompted MILF hard-liners to go on a killing spree targeting Catholic communities. The government froze talks with the MILF and backed out of the Aug. 4 deal, which the Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled unconstitutional.
The Associated Press (AP) quoted the top negotiator of MILF as saying that the court ruling had cast doubt on the government's reliability as a negotiating partner. He warned that MILF extremists might give up on the peace process altogether and step up violent attacks.
Mohagher Iqbal, chief negotiator for the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, said the only option left for the rebels was to take the accord to the United Nations and the Organization of the Islamic Conference to seek their guarantees that if talks resume their outcome will be respected.
"We will bring it to a forum where the voices of the Moros will be heard," he said.
He criticized President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo's government for backing out of the deal after 11 years of negotiations, and said militants within the rebel ranks who are opposed to the peace process may stage fresh attacks.
"After long years, we came to a point that seemed to bolster what the anti-negotiation groups are saying: that the government could not be trusted," Iqbal said.
The Inquirer, a Filipino daily, quoted a military spokesman, Maj. Armand Rico, as saying government troops were now bracing for more attacks by "rogue" MILF members. He said the military was hunting down extremists responsible for atrocities against civilians.
"Our operations are not against the entire MILF organization but only against its rogue followers. We want to restore peace and order in the region," he said of the punitive actions against Ameril Ombra Kato.
Kato and another MILF leader, Abdullah Macapaar alias Commander Bravo, are accused of leading earlier attacks on civilians in North Cotabato and Lanao del Norte, respectively.
In its close, 8-to-7 decision Tuesday, the Supreme Court ruled that the Aug. 4 deal was unconstitutional both in content and process, the Inquirer reported. It would have created an illegal partition of the Muslim autonomous area, the court ruled, and was drafted without due consultation with affected communities. The report quoted from the ruling:
"The [deal] cannot be reconciled with the present Constitution and laws. Not only its specific provisions but the very concept underlying them....
The furtive process by which the [deal] was designed and crafted runs contrary to and in excess of the legal authority, and amounts to a whimsical, capricious, oppressive, arbitrary and despotic exercise."
The Court said the government erred in promising constitutional amendments in order to put the deal into effect, the Manila Bulletin reported.
The Supreme Court also pointed out that the agreement usurped Congress's power to amend the Constitution by issuing guarantees that constitutional amendments would be made to put the illegal provisions of the agreement into effect.
The Supreme Court said not even the president can make such guarantees to amend the Constitution.
GMANews.TV, the website of GMA News and Public Affairs, reported that bishops in Mindanao – the violence-racked island where MILF is based – hailed the court's decision but also called for the peace process to continue.
The MILF must face up to the reality that the [agreement], while the product of long and arduous negotiations with the other side, is not a "done deal" as it insists, but rather a deal doomed from the start because it would have established a state within a state.