Events in the Southern Philippines are gathering pace. The prospect of peace in the country’s long-troubled south has ricocheted across Mindanao and the Sulu Sea with the changing political dynamics kick starting an insurgency in neighboring Malaysia and raising tensions between Manila and Kuala Lumpur.
The insurgency has gone quiet over the past fortnight with a militia supported by the self-anointed Sulu Sultan Jamalul Kiram III finding sanctuary among the countless water villages housing hundreds of thousands of illegal Filipinos, dotted along the east coast of Sabah, from Lahad Datu to Tawau.
But one man who benefited most is perhaps the Australian Warren Rodwell, 54, who was released last weekend after spending 15 months in captivity. Prior to his kidnapping, he had married, lived locally, been kidnapped by the notorious Abu Sayyaf, who were demanding $2 million for his ransom.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
His plight created a mess for an Australian government reluctant to pay ransoms and the Filipinos who have had to deal with dozens of such kidnappings, including Western tourists who were also taken from the east coast Sabah.
The framework for a proposed peace deal between Manila and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) was thrashed out last year and signed in an accord on October 15. In the process a splinter group, the Moro National Liberation Front (MILF) s attempted to extract hostages held by Abu Sayyaf.
In the end, Rodwell’s wife Miraflor Gutang paid a substantially reduced ransom of about $93,000 after negotiations were opened with the Abu Sayyaf with help from Basilan Vice-Governor Al Rasheed Sakalahul. Looking gaunt and exhausted, Rodwell walked to freedom.
Rodwell’s release and the peace deal have also bolstered Philippine President Begnino Aquinio who is facing mid-term elections in May. But his troubles with the south are far from exhausted.
Aquino has prioritized seeking justice for the 58 victims, including 32 journalists, of the 2009 Muguindanao Massacre. At present, 87 accused have been brought before the courts, many of them belonging to the Ampatuan clan.
The Ampatuans had enjoyed a special relationship with Aquino’s predecessor Gloria Arroyo. Now they are plotting to widen their already extensive political interests with more than 40 clan members expected to run for a variety of government posts in the upcoming polls.
Finding a solution to the mix of insurgencies and ending the role of militias vying for power in the Southern Philippines has eluded Manila for decades and given the current political recipe absolute peace is unlikely any time soon.
Yet, despite the fallout in Sabah, the Southern Philippines remains on its best footing in years, a shift that is largely thanks to Aquino who came to power in 2010 on an election plank built on finding a lasting peace down south.