Philippines Peace and Tough Talk

Is Aquino going to be able to secure a breakthrough in peace talks and resolve the conflict in the southern Philippines?

Kick-starting peace talks in the Philippines was never going to be easy. Entrenched interests coupled with well-armed militias and an alphabet soup of insurgents meant recently elected President Benigno Aquino would always find it tough. Indeed, many are willing to write the talks off before they start.

Among his biggest obstacles are his predecessor, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, whose legacy includes the appointment of Supreme Court judges who some suggest have blocked repeated attempts to establish independent panels to investigate allegations of corruption and abuse during her rule.

The killing of journalists and human rights workers rose significantly under Arroyo’s tenure, many of them in Mindanao where talks with the separatist group the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) will provide the benchmark for success or failure in the country’s south.

However, Aquino is making some headway with the National Democratic Front (NDF), supporting Manila’s appointment of human rights lawyer Alexander Padilla to take part in the negotiations. The NDF is an alliance of 17 opposition groups including the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and the New People's Army (NPA).

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Another issue being dealt with is Malaysia. Kuala Lumpur has featured prominently in previous peace efforts, in particular 2008, which resulted in a much sought after homeland for indigenous Moros. However, this was struck down by the courts as unconstitutional, resulting in a resumption of heavy fighting.

About 400,000 were forced to flee their homes as anger arising from the court ruling translated into carnage and chaos in the south.

The Philippines has declined to provide any formal reason over why it doesn’t want Othman Abdula Razak involved, but behind the scenes Manila has complained of Kuala Lumpur biases towards the rebels, perhaps due to their shared Muslim heritage.

Rebels want Othman and Kuala Lumpur to remain involved in the peace process to ensure that previous gains aren’t traded away in another round of talks, but they have also apparently been told of difficulties between Othman and Manila and are re-considering their position.

Norway, which has an enviable track record in negotiating conflict resolution, will act as mediator in the next round with rebels fighting for self-rule for a minority of Muslims in the southern Philippines.

And, in an apparent olive branch to Christian Manila, rebels recently suggested they will forsake an independent homeland in return for a state to be run along similar lines and with independence akin to those in the United States.

If confirmed, that could prove pivotal in obtaining a lasting peace.