Mindanao's challenge: Keeping peace

Mindanao's challenge: Keeping peace
Young boys walking past MILF rebels during a rally to support the peace deal in Mindanao last Thursday. The Muslim group in the Philippines signed an historic pact to end one of Asia's longest conflicts.

MANILA - Now that the celebrations are over, the long, hard march to keep the peace in the conflict-torn but resource-rich southern Philippine island of Mindanao begins.

Will peace hold long enough to bring about a viable, vibrant autonomous region for Muslims in this largely Catholic nation?

Everyone with a stake in the five-page agreement signed between the Philippines and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) on Thursday admits that the road ahead will be bumpy.

"Implementation will not be easy," said the government's chief peace negotiator Miriam Colonel-Ferrer.

The immediate threats are fringe groups that feel they have been left out of the deal, chief among them the MILF's rival, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), an MILF splinter group.

The MNLF has over the years been marginalised, but it still commands enough fighters to lay siege to an entire city.

Last September, it attacked the southern port city of Zamboanga, sparking three weeks of urban conflict with the military that left at least 244 people dead and 116,000 civilians displaced.

Then, there are the extremists - the bandit group Abu Sayyaf and its partner Jemaah Islamiah - which have shown no interest in peace and are instead bent on waging a mercenary war to fund global terrorism.

If the peace pact with the MILF fails to bring about its lofty promise of prosperity, the MNLF and BIFF, with periodic alliances with the Abu Sayyaf and Jemaah Islamiah, are likely to gain enough sympathy to again plunge the whole of Mindanao into another costly, protracted conflict.

For now, the peace deal is essentially just a pledge and a declaration of aspirations.

Essentially, the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (Muslim nation) calls on the MILF, which the military believes has about 12,000 fighters, to lay down arms and transition into politicians who will lead Mindanao's independent region for Muslims: the Bangsamoro.

The region will have its own police force, a parliament and power to levy taxes. The national government will still control defence.

How exactly this picture will become reality will take at least two more years.

A crucial deadline is the middle of 2016, when President Benigno Aquino's term will end and the Bangsamoro peace pact will be at the mercy of a new president.

Before then, Mr Aquino hopes to convince an unruly Congress to pass a "basic law" by the end of this year that will govern the Bangsamoro.

MILF chairman Al Haj Murad Ebrahim said he sees the MILF acting as a "gatekeeper" that will eventually hand over the "keys of the gate" to the "democratic will of the Bangsamoro".

The assurance, though, may not be enough for influential Catholic politicians who would be marginalised by the creation of the Bangsamoro, said Mr Jesus Dureza, the chief peace negotiator with the MILF in 2001-2003 under a previous government.

"There are influential political leaders in the area who may not look too kindly on the new (power-sharing) paradigm," he said.


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