No sooner do the long-awaited peace talks get underway in the southern Philippines than another bloody crisis erupts. This time, fighting broke out between the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the Mangudadatu clan.
Fourteen people died in the remote village of Tenok and hundreds were forced to flee their homes this week after fighting erupted Sunday over construction of a road. Long-standing personal grudges were also a factor. The MILF says the road is ‘development aggression’ designed to dislodge locals and their supporters from the surrounding area where the Mangudadatu family intends to establish palm oil plantations.
Peace talks between the Philippine government and the MILF have only just resumed after a two-year hiatus, thanks largely to the efforts President Benigno Aquino, who was elected last year, partially on a pledge to do all he could to end the violence in the country’s south.
Observers like the International Crisis Groups were encouraged by Aquino’s efforts, noting the situation on Mindanao—where rebels have fought for an independent homeland for decades—had improved dramatically over the past 12 months. This was despite the realities of a dysfunctional local government system based more on clans and local militias than earnest officials and town planning.
Mindanao Gov. Zaldy Ampatuan, along with other members of his family, are before the courts over an attack on a rival political group that killed 57 people, including 30 journalists.
The MILF have also undermined their cause by forging loose arrangements with less savoury elements including the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) and Jemaah Islamiyah (JI).
Support for both groups has waned amid years of harassment by the authorities. JI stalwart, Omar, or Umar Patek, was recently arrested in Pakistan. He was also the last senior figure wanted in regards to the 2002 Bali bombings.
Still, the MILF has enjoyed some sort of credibility with the wider public and Christian Manila, largely because its quest for a homeland has been linked to indigenous rights as opposed to religious militancy or clan-based politics.
The next round of peace talks was scheduled for late April, but now the effort seems focused on reconciling the Muslim rebels with the Mangudadatu clan, led by Maguindanao Gov. Esmael Mangudadatu. Some of his relatives died in the clashes.
He says reconciliation is aimed at preventing further fighting with MILF leader Tauting Salendab, while the MILF has formed Task Force Tenok to negotiate.
These talks will no doubt be watched carefully by the International Monitoring Team consisting of observers from six countries put in place for the 20th round of peace talks that most hope will end a civil war that has claimed 120,000 lives over four decades.