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Asia

Long road to peace in Mindanao

Obstacles remain before a peace agreement between the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the Philippine government can be implemented, says Jasmin Lorch from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.

In this photo taken Tuesday Aug. 16, 2011, Ameril Umbra Kato, right, the commander of Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), the breakaway faction of the largest Filipino Muslim rebel group, leads his men in prayers inside his rebel stronghold in Maguindanao province in southern Philippines. On Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2011, the largest Muslim rebel group in the Philippines, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) has given the radical Kato, with hundreds of fighters, a final warning to stop a mutiny or face expulsion, which would expose his breakaway force to possible military assaults. (AP Photo/Nickee Butlangan)

Philippinen Armee Moro islamische Befreiungsfront

The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) has been fighting for more than 40 years for an autonomous state in the region of Mindanao in the south of the Philippines. Some 150,000 have been killed in the conflict. How did this agreement come about?

Jasmin Lorch: Negotiations between the Philippine government and the MILF have been going on for years. The current president, Benigno Aquino, made it clear in his election campaign and when he came to power that he wanted to reach a peace deal with the MILF. There have been times in the past when they were very close to coming to an agreement, for example under Gloria Macagapal Arroyo's government. The current MILF leadership, which is considered to be relatively moderate, has been striving for a peace deal for a long time.

The liberation front no longer seems to want its own state. Has it changed its mind?

Jasmin Lorch ist Gastwissenschaftlerin der Forschungsgruppe Asien bei der Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik in Berlin. Copyright: SWP (Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik) Das Bild wurde von Frau Candida Splett, Online-Redakteurin bei der Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, Berlin geliefert.

Jasmin Lorch Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik

The MILF has shown a certain willingness to compromise over the past few years. But the decision to renounce its claim to a new state only occurred under the current president. The MILF already controls an extensive territory which enjoys a great deal of autonomy. The rebel leaders now want to make sure that this autonomy is guaranteed institutionally. They have come to the conclusion that this can best be achieved within the framework of a peace agreement. A successful peace agreement would also enable the MILF to bond with the population, which is sick of the war.

Muslims are a minority in the predominantly Catholic country and they live mainly in Mindanao. The roadmap for a peace agreement includes the foundation of a semi-autonomous province which would be called Bangsamoro. Will this solve all the problems?

One problem is that there are great divisions within the Muslim population and not all Muslims in Mindanao support the MILF. There are also areas of Mindanao that are largely populated by Christians. The interests are very heterogeneous. Apart from religion, the conflict also has to do with clan politics, language, ethnic tensions and land rights.

What else does the blueprint for the framework agreement include?

It includes extensive autonomy for domestic affairs such as tax policy and also for Islamic Sharia law in parts. Mindanao is rich in natural resources such as gas and oil. In future, the government of the autonomous region will receive a large part of the income from these resources. But matters involving currency, defense and foreign policy will remain in the hands of the center.

MILF leaders have welcomed the agreement with the government. Can this be seen as a breakthrough?

It is a breakthrough insofar as the main points are recognized by both the government and the MILF. But there are still two questions in the end: Whether the peace accord can be implemented on this basis. A peace accord still needs to be agreed by referendum. It could still fail if the predominantly Christian areas fail to support it.

According to media reports, the framework agreement will be signed in mid-October. And a peace accord is supposed to come into effect before Aquino leaves office. What challenges do you foresee in the implementation of this plan?

One important obstacle is the Philippine constitution, which prescribes a unitarian state. Far-reaching autonomy for the areas controlled by the MILF would only be possible if there was a federal state structure. And that's why the peace deals have failed in the past. Without constitutional reform there is also a big risk now that the peace deals and then the implementation of the accord might fail.

I also envisage an even bigger problem in the fact that the MILF is very divided. There are groupings that are much more radical than the current leadership. They have little interest in a peace deal. In the past, individual commanders have split off and founded new more radical militant breakaway groups. The biggest challenge will thus be to implement a peace accord and to do it in such a way that the MILF leadership manages to keep the ranks in line.

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