SULTAN KUDARAT, Philippines – Muslim rebels in Mindanao are pushing Japan to boost aid to conflict-affected areas in the southern Philippines, saying it will hasten peace and development in the impoverished region.
“We believe that Japan could play a very important role in bringing peace, especially to the conflict-affected in Mindanao,” Al-Haj Murad Ibrahim, chairman of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, or MILF, said in an interview.
Mindanao, the second-largest Philippine island, is home to most Filipino Muslims, who make up about 5 percent of the country’s 85 million people.
Japan is playing peacemaker on the island scarred by decades of war that have stunted the growth of the mineral-rich islands. It is the first non-Islamic country to join the international monitoring team, a 60-member group keeping track of a 2003 ceasefire agreement.
Speaking in Sultan Kudarat, 890 km southeast of Manila, Murad voiced hope that countries from the European Union join ongoing international efforts to rehabilitate Mindanao. Canada, New Zealand and Australia are among those that pledged aid while a peace accord is being worked out.
“We requested Japan to play a leading role in the rehabilitation development,” Murad, 58, said, stressing the need to focus on projects that will directly benefit the region’s poor, including ways to boost the output of rice and other produce.
“I think we need more support in the aspect of technology. Although we need infrastructure projects, the priority should focus on improving the livelihood of the people,” Murad said.
“We need to build peace on the ground. That way our people will feel that even before the signing (of a peace pact) there is already something concrete happening which is beneficial to them,” he said.
Murad welcomed Japan’s decision to send a “development expert” to the island, saying it signals Japan’s willingness to play a more active role in the peace process.
Foreign Minister Taro Aso told Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo in Manila on July 23 of Japan’s “desire to contribute more actively to the peace process by assisting those living in conflict-affected areas” to find a lasting peace.
Already Tokyo has ordered the embassy in Manila, the Japan International Cooperation Agency and the Japan Bank for International Cooperation to set up a Mindanao task force that would support the Japanese development expert.
The task force will formulate a development plan for Mindanao and coordinate to make sure the projects are implemented.
Japanese-funded projects will focus on building schools, vocational training centers, water supply systems and health-care centers in the conflict-affected areas of central Mindanao, Aso said.
There are about 105 towns and about 4,000 villages in central Mindanao affected by the conflict that involves the MILF, the country’s largest and most militant Muslim group, which has a long-term aim of creating a separate Islamic state in the southern Philippines.
Based in central Mindanao, the 12,000-strong MILF enjoys broad popular support in rural areas where lack of economic development has fueled dissent.
More than 120,000 people have been killed and more than 200,000 displaced in the war that has been raging since the 1970s.
UNICEF puts the number of displaced much higher, saying that from 2000 to 2003 alone, 300,000 children were displaced.
Yoshinori Takori, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry in Tokyo, said in Kuala Lumpur in late July that Japan and Malaysia, the broker of the peace talks, have agreed to “cooperate very closely in joint activities in Mindanao.”
“Japan will take care of development and economic and social issues, and I think we can also cooperate closely with Malaysia, which is taking care of security,” Takori said.
Japan seeks to implement 10 projects in central Mindanao within a year through its grant assistance for grassroots human security projects.
Launched in 1989, Japan’s aid program has carried out 367 projects throughout the Philippines, about a third of them in Mindanao.
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