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Asia

Zamboanga siege 'will not affect peace talks'

Government forces and Muslim rebels have been locked for days in a standoff in the southern Philippines. However, analyst Steven Rood says the national impact of the confrontation is likely to be limited.

The recent fighting broke out on September 9 between members of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and government forces in the port city of Zamboanga, a major southern trading hub. According to media reports, at least 114 people have been killed and more than 110,000 others displaced. Dozens of civilians were also taken hostage by the Muslim rebels, but were later released as troops gained ground.

The siege of the sixth largest city of the Southeast Asian nation began some four weeks after Nur Misuari, the founder of the MNLF declared "independence" for the Muslim regions. In a DW interview, Philippines expert Steven Rood says that despite the severe local impact of the recent attacks, they will not affect the ongoing peace talks between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), a splinter group of the MNLF.

DW: Why have members of the National Liberation Front (MNLF) forces attacked Zamboanga City?

Steven Rood: The immediate cause is unhappiness with a perceived marginalization of the elements of the MNLF associated with Nur Misuari in the ongoing peace process in Mindanao. The Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which broke away from the MNLF in the early 1980s, are making progress towards an agreement where a new government entity, the "Bangsamoro," will be instituted by 2016 to replace the current Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, formerly ruled by Misuari.

Steven Rood, Country Representative for the Philippines and Pacific Island Nations at the Asia Foundation. (Copyright: Asia Foundation).

Rood says cultural clash between Muslims and Catholics in the Philippines has diminished over the years

How dangerous has the situation become for civilians in the town?

A large number of civilians were originally taken hostage to be used as human shields by the MNLF forces. Most of them have been released unharmed, or rescued, but a couple of dozen still remain as hostages some 11 days after the start of the incident.

While the government tried to evacuate residents from the combat zone, a number of civilians were caught in the crossfire, others are unable to leave the area. Those who were able to flee are either staying in private homes, or in centers for displaced people.

What are the roots of the current conflict?

The Muslim separatist forces began an armed rebellion more than 40 years ago, fighting not only marginalization in a largely Christian country, but also the influx of Christian settlers from other parts of the country and intrusion into their political affairs by the Manila government led by Ferdinand Marcos.

These rebel forces originally demanded an independent Moro state, but later settled for an autonomous region during negotiations with the central government which concluded with a peace agreement in 1996.

The latest fighting in and around Zamboanga City was sparked when the government announced a review of the implementation of the 1996 peace deal. Misuari objected to this, arguing the treaty had been voided by the government. As a result, he declared the independence of the region last month.

What impact could the conflict have on the issue of Islamic insurgency in the Southeast Asian country?

In the short run, the Zamboanga City incident will not affect the ongoing peace talks between the government and the MILF. Both sides have a desire, and indeed a concrete interest, in bringing forth a comprehensive agreement in the next few weeks. There are many people in the international community encouraging this outcome.

In the medium term, the latest fighting emphasizes the need to have a coalition to push towards peace and development in the Muslim-majority island of Mindanao.

The Philippines is a largely Catholic country. What underlying tensions exist between Catholics and Muslims in the Philippines?

The cultural clash has diminished over the years, and opinion surveys show a diminution of mutual suspicion over the past decades. Muslim holy days are now official holidays, Muslims - often fleeing decades of violence - have spread throughout the country, and a generation of college-educated Muslims are beginning to make their presence felt.

What economic repercussions could the clashes have on the Philippines?

The local impact will be severe. Zamboanga City is the trading hub for that part of the country, and it has been totally shut down. The air and sea ports have not been functioning, so neither goods nor people are moving. Neighborhoods have been devastated.

However, the national impact is likely to be small. The Philippines has been having an economic surge, fueled by an administration focused on fighting corruption and delivering service. Investors are increasingly interested in the country, especially after recently being upgraded by credit ratings agencies.

How is this conflict likely to end?

As MNLF fighters surrender or are captured, their cases are turned over to the regular justice system. There will certainly be arrests, as some of those involved in the fighting had pre-existing arrest warrants, and there have been a large number of casualties. This time accountability will be exacted by processes of law.

Steven Rood is the representative of the Asia Foundation in the Philippines and Pacific Island Nations.

The interview was conducted by Gabriel Domínguez.