Hurdles stall peace efforts in Phillipines

Bloomberg

The Philippine government faces challenges implementing an accord aimed at ending decades of conflict in resource-rich Mindanao, with the risk of violence from Muslim rebel groups not included in the deal and private armies in the area.

An independent body will conduct a census of rebels, inventory their weapons and schedule the phasing out of arms over the next two years, during which programs will be put in place to help fighters move to civilian life, according to the agreement signed Jan. 25 by the government and Moro Islamic Liberation Front in Kuala Lumpur.

Ending one of Southeast Asia’s most entrenched conflicts could mark a key legacy for President Benigno Aquino, with four decades of insurgency killing as many as 200,000 people and stifling development of the southern region. Still, implementing the accord is “easier said than done” given rival rebel groups and private armies operating in the area, said Rommel Banlaoi, executive director of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research.

“The annex on normalization made a lot of promises. If they fail to deliver, that will create unmet expectations and trigger more armed violence in Mindanao,” Banlaoi said.

Soldiers clashed Jan. 26 and Jan. 27 with members of a splinter rebel group in the Mindanao provinces of Maguindanao and North Cotabato, Colonel Dickson Hermoso, a spokesman for the army’s 6th infantry division, said. Soldiers fired artillery rounds as they tried to arrest members of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, with several rebels wounded as they escaped, he said. No government troops were injured.

Lasting peace could bring investors to Mindanao and unlock mineral deposits worth an estimated $300 billion, political analyst Richard Javad Heydarian said.

Standard Chartered Plc economist Jeff Ng estimates a peace accord could boost Philippine gross domestic product growth by as much as 0.3 percentage point. The $250 billion Philippine economy expanded in 2013 by 7 percent, the fastest pace in three years, according to the median estimate of economists.

Mindanao accounted for 14.4 percent of Philippine output in 2012, according to government data. It’s also home to much of the country’s Muslim population, about 5 percent of the Philippines’ more than 100 million people, according to estimates by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.

Private armies will be disbanded, six rebel camps will become civilian communities and criminal cases related to the Mindanao conflict will be resolved through pardon and amnesty under the accord, the last of four needed to complete a comprehensive agreement. The peace panels also agreed on jurisdiction over waters to be included in Bangsamoro, the new autonomous Muslim political entity targeted by 2016.

Private armies in Mindanao are “well-entrenched, run by wild oligarchs,” Banlaoi said. “It’s the responsibility of the Bangsamoro government to tame the wild oligarchs.”

Three weeks of fighting in Zamboanga city between government forces and a different Muslim separatist group in September killed at least 203 people and delayed peace talks.

“The MNLF has demonstrated its capability to make trouble,” Banlaoi said, referring to the Moro National Liberation Front headed by Nur Misuari, a former Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao governor, which was involved in the Zamboanga standoff.

“It can undermine the peace dividends; it can spoil the whole process and even hijack the agenda of the new Bangsamoro government,” Banlaoi said.

Aquino has asked lawmakers to pass legislation this year creating Bangsamoro, setting the stage for an autonomous Muslim region before his six-year term ends in 2016.

“Our legislators will take on the crucial role of enacting the Bangsamoro Basic Law,” Teresita Deles, Aquino’s peace adviser, said in a statement after the signing in Kuala Lumpur.

“It has been a difficult road getting to here and we know that the path ahead will continue to be fraught with challenges,” Deles said.