Philippine President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino has made an unprecedented trip into the country’s troubled south in a bid to speed up a tortuously slow peace process. The initiative comes amid an offensive to push out the Abu Sayyaf – the last Islamic militants in the south linked to Al-Qaeda.
Aquino made the historic trip to Sultan Kudarat, to the outskirts of the main camp of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) on Mindanao Island, where he said peace talks should be completed before his term ends in 2016.
Apparently friends had advised him not to go, as it was considered too dangerous. Aquino went anyway, saying there were still obstacles to peace and the Framework of Agreement on the Bangsamoro, struck last October. This framework aims to end a four-decade conflict that has cost perhaps 150,000 lives.
The agreement allows for an autonomous region, a homeland for the Muslim Moro people who have waged a separatist war against predominantly Christian Manila first through the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and later through the MILF.
The MNLF struck a peace agreement with Manila, but disgruntled members who were unhappy with the arrangements splintered and established the MILF, through which they continued fighting.
“We are near the fruits of our labor. This is not the time for our hearts to grow faint,” Aquino told an ensemble of Muslim leaders, diplomats and local residents. "We have just three years and four months left. We have to speed up everything we are doing now to make this permanent."
Connections between the MNLF, the MILF, Abu Sayyaf and the now defunct Jemaah Islamiyah were never tight and were based more on the need to coexist in very difficult and isolated terrain. But according to recent reports, the MNLF has turned their guns against the Abu Sayyaf.
This could be a game changer.
In one recent battle Abu Sayyaf gunmen clashed with MNLF forces, leaving at least 22 people dead in the mountainous jungles on the island of Jolo. The great hope among the Philippine and Western militaries operating in the area is that the MNLF can finally put an end to the widely-loathed Abu Sayyaf.
According to the Associated Press (AP), the trouble began when the MNLF embarked on an effort to regain their former dominance in the region by attempting to obtain the release of several hostages being held by Abu Sayyaf, including foreigners.
The MNLF attacked when Abu Sayyaf commanders refused to hand over the hostages.
Moro commander Khabier Malik told AP that Moro rebels were still trying to rescue the captives and end Abu Sayyaf's reign. Malik noted that the two groups speak the same language and live in the same jungles, but the MNLF would not allow the brutal Abu Sayyaf to rule any longer.
MNLF numbers are much higher than those of Abu Sayyaf and when push comes to shove their strategy could prove instrumental in establishing a broader peace deal in the southern Philippines. This would end opposition to peace within Abu Sayyaf ranks and help the MILF seal a peace deal with Manila in time for Aquino's re-election in 2016.