Peace talks have finally resumed between the Mora Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the government of the Philippines, but negotiations appear shaky amid escalating tensions after the latest round of deadly fighting forced thousands to flee their homes.
Angering the military is a decision by the MILF not to hand over fugitive commander Dan Laksaw Asnawi, accused of beheading at least 10 Filipino Marines in 2007 and sparking last month’s clash in Basilan that left 19 soldiers dead.
The talks, taking place in Kuala Lumpur, were supposed to pick up from meetings held in Tokyo in August, when both sides failed to agree on a MILF demand for the creation of a Muslim sub-state in Mindanao, which is predominantly Christian.
Claims of rebel involvement in the latest spate of kidnappings in the Southern Philippines were also set to be discussed.
Further souring the atmosphere were the Ampatuans, the political clan from Maguindanao currently before the courts and blamed for the massacre of 58 people two years ago, including 34 journalists. The group were also key supporters of former President Gloria Arroyo.
Their private army has clashed with the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), led by ousted MILF field commander Ameril Umbra Kato, for unknown reasons. Also unknown is why some of the peace negotiators failed to turn up for the talks, with only four from each side attending.
After all, the government’s three-stage proposal had won initial, if limited, support. This plan included a road map for social and economic rehabilitation through a joint committee responsible for development, and a peace accord to be administered by a yet to be established Bangsamoro Commission, which would craft legislation on autonomy and supervise any peace pact.
In addition, under the plan, the government of President Benigno Aquino would acknowledge historical injustices and would reconcile this by allowing the official retelling of ‘the real history of Mindanao.’ But the MILF appears to have gone cold on the three point plan, and asked Malaysia to broker the current round.
The Philippines is prone to coups, and there’s increasing resentment within the military over perceptions that Aquino hasn’t toed a tough enough line against the militants, particularly in light of recent attacks. Such perceptions could be galvanized if the Ampatuans are serious about lining up against BIFF.
It’s no secret that Manila wanted to use these talks to hasten broader peace talks. Equally, the government has other issues to contend with, including a Maoist rebellion and a persistent face-off with China over the Spratly Islands.
The Maoists continue to attack government forces and are refusing talks until prisoners are released, while China isn’t expected to do the Philippines any favors in the disputed waters.
This leaves Aquino in his toughest diplomatic position since taking office mid-way through last year. His toughest judges won’t be the MILF, Bangsamoros, Maoists, Beijing or even the Ampatuans. It could well be the military men and women who swear their allegiance to the president.