In a clearing just outside the southern Philippine town of Sultan Kudarat the leader of the country’s biggest Muslim group contemplates an uncertain future.
After 40 years of conflict, Al Haj Murad Ebrahim, chairman of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), hoped the new Philippine government of President Benigno Aquino would finally do what past presidents have failed to do—bring peace to this south-eastern corner of the Philippine archipelago.
But with some commanders having already broken away from the MILF central command, and the government considering starting negotiations from scratch, Murad isn’t so certain anymore.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
‘At the moment we’re getting mixed signals from Manila,’ Murad told reporters at the MILF’s administrative headquarters at Camp Darapanan in the Southern Philippines. ‘We already have a comprehensive compact with the last government that will bring peace to Mindanao. Now we are told the government wants to start from scratch.
That agreement was struck in mid-2008 only to be overturned by the courts in Manila as unconstitutional, signaling resumption in a civil conflict that’s heading into its fifth decade, with widespread violence forcing half a million people to flee their homes.
Murad’s sentiments are echoed across the Sulu Sea on the northern tip of Borneo where between 200,000 and 300,000 ethnic Filipinos have sought refuge—to the irritation of their Malaysian hosts—from the fighting that has wracked their homeland.
And the refugee population has grown rapidly, impacting enormously the local way of life as MILF intensified its efforts to create an Islamic homeland in Mindanao for the Bangsamoro people. Exact figures aren’t available, although thousands more arrived in East Malaysia after the latest fighting erupted two years ago.
Initially, camps were established by the United Nations in Kota Kinabalu, Sandakan, Lahad Datu and Tawau for the small numbers that arrived here in the 1970s. The United Nations currently has very little to do with camps, and human rights workers fear the world body has simply walked away from the issue. So far it has declined to comment on its position in regards to the camps, and activists in Malaysia say to succeed, peace talks must also address the needs of tens of thousands of Filipino refugees.
It’s all a festering sore that the new administration in Manila wants cleaned up, and Aquino’s May election to the top post has raised hopes of a concerted effort to bring peace to the country's forever troubled south.
Irene Fernandez, executive director of Tenaganita, a Malaysian organization that works to protect the rights of women and refugees, says any effort to find a lasting peace must also resolve the fate of Filipino immigrants in Malaysia, who are often blamed for every social ill in their adopted towns.