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.
‘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.
‘Many of them, they’ve become stateless during the last 35 years that they have been here. And it will be a good way of getting as many of the Filipinos to return to Mindanao from where they originally come from,’ she says.
But she adds that peace talks must also provide the refugees with an option to remain legally and work in Malaysia. Only then, she says, could peace talks be said to have reached a fair and just conclusion.
‘I have my concerns,’ Fernandez says. ‘We are looking at a second and third generation and sometimes even the fourth who don’t have any form of identity or knowledge of the Philippines and they look at themselves as more Sabahan or Malaysian rather than Filipino.’
An international monitoring team that includes Norway—which found success in brokering a peace between Aceh rebels and Jakarta—Brunei, Japan and Libya has been appointed to oversee the peace process in Mindanao, and monitor any accord struck between the Aquino government and the MILF.
But Murad is well aware of the problems negotiators face.
In 1996, the government negotiated a successful peace agreement with the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), the country’s first Muslim revolutionary group, which saw the establishment of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), a poor impoverished backwater. But this didn’t result in lasting peace.
The MILF in fact grew out of the turmoil within the MNLF with many young Muslims believing the MNLF had ‘sold out.’ The breakaway MILF faction chaired by Salamat Hashim, until his death in 2003, was sidelined during the 1996 talks that created ARMM.
‘We’ve been fighting for a homeland now for 40 years—a generation, Murad says. ‘The next generations of leaders were born during the struggle and have only known violence and the hardship of war. My concern is that unless a solution is found now, the next generation will be more militant and more radical. You can feel it among the youth.’
The future of Mindanao’s disenfranchised Muslim youth could have greater ramifications for the region. Although not designated a terrorist organization by the United States, some factions within the MILF are known to have associations with the terrorist outfit Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) and the assorted bandits and self-anointed freedom fighters who hide under the umbrella of the Abu Sayyaf.
‘Radicalization is a concern and the longer talks drag on the more the difficult it will be to solve,’ Murad says. ‘We’ve been negotiating now for 13 years with successive governments and the leadership is not getting younger. We can’t start the process all over again.’
Muslim frustrations are shared by the Catholic Church, which has hosted a series of workshops aimed at kick-starting the peace process, and has publicly lamented that biases and prejudices by some Christians were hampering peace efforts in Mindanao.
‘It’s very important that we change how we look at people of other cultural groups such as the Muslims and the indigenous peoples,’ Cagayan de Oro Archbishop Antonio Ledesma says.
Father Ledesma adds that Christians must make an effort to reconcile themselves with people of other faiths, particularly Islam.
‘Reconciliation should be part and parcel of peace building,’ he says. ‘We need to change our mindset and our understanding of the dignity of the human person, whatever his/her culture and religion.’
Also hampering peace efforts are well-armed militias, heavy migration into the area by non-Muslims, corrupt local politicians and an uneven distribution of land seen as little more than a grab by the local Bangsamoro people.
The MILF has signed 87 agreements and documents with the Philippine government and initialed a landmark Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD) that committed both sides to a comprehensive compact aimed at a lasting political settlement.
That agreement, signed in August 2008, basically called for the establishment of a Moro state within the Republic of the Philippines. However, the Supreme Court quashed the agreement with critics arguing the MOA-AD would lead to the breakup of the Philippines.
Keith Loveard, a security analyst at Jakarta-based Concord Consulting, sounds a cautious note and suggests Aquino should consider dissolving court jurisdiction over the disputed territory and rule by Executive Fiat.
‘Let's not forget that with the MILF the Philippines went all the way to an agreement that was then thrown out by the courts. This doesn’t provide much in the way of optimism for future success,’ he says.‘Add to this the very different societies that are at play here and it seems to me it will be extremely difficult to find common ground that wasn't already part of the initial agreement…Unless Muslim society can be given some meaningful autonomy in the lands that they recognize as their traditional right it will be difficult for the MILF leadership to accept.’
Murad says the MILF now boasts 60,000 men under arms with an ability to mobilize 120,000 on short notice alongside a support base of one million people. There are also 42 active camps and he says money and weapons are plentiful while the MILF is now making its own rocket propelled grenades.
‘President Aquino has six years to solve the problem if he is serious. We were never conquered by the Spanish or any other foreign entity for that matter,’ he says referring to the indigenous Bangsamoro.
‘We want a homeland—a sub-state, not some sort of bogus autonomy. An expanded ARMM is not acceptable. Our struggle is not for us—the MILF—it is for the Bangsamoro people.’
Karl Wilson was reporting from Camp Darapanan in the Philippines. Luke Hunt is currently in Sandakan, Malaysia.