MILF doubts talks will lead anywhere

Posted at 03/12/2008 7:31 PM


By MANNY MOGATO
Reuters

MARAWI CITY - Abu Kausar, a battle-scarred Philippine Muslim rebel, faced death more than once in fighting government troops on the southern island of Mindanao in 2000.

Hundreds of his comrades from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the Philippines' largest Muslim rebel group, were killed in five months of fighting that year when the government launched an all-out war to dismantle rebel camps on Mindanao.

Now relative peace reigns. A ceasefire between the two sides has held for almost five years, but there are rumblings within MILF ranks that peace talks are not headed anywhere.

"I am ready to fight and die for our cause if the peace talks fail to end the problem in Mindanao," the 50 year-old Kausar, an assault rifle on his back, told Reuters as he stood in a formation with thousands of rebels under a baking sun.

"But, I am a good soldier. If our top commanders want to give the peace negotiations another chance, then I would follow their orders. Personally, I think the peace talks would lead to nowhere because the government is not sincere in solving the conflict."

Kausar's sentiments mirror the impatience and frustration of most MILF members.

However, MILF head Al haj Ebrahim Murad said the group has reached a consensus to abide by the peace process after three days of consultations with thousands of armed followers at a rebel camp in Lanao del Sur province this week.

The MILF has been in on-off talks with the government for more than 10 years, but an agreement appears distant to end nearly 40 years of conflict that has killed 120,000 people and displaced 2 million.

In December 2007, the two sides were close to signing a deal on the creation of an ancestral homeland for 3 million Muslims in the south, when talks stalled over constitutional issues.

At the time, the rebels refused to sit down with government officials in Malaysia and accused Manila of trying to change some consensus points the two sides had already agreed.


Rumblings
As the talks drag, analysts say the MILF leadership has started to feel pressure from younger and radicalized field commanders straining to break the ceasefire and abandon negotiations.

Mars Buan, a security analyst at the Pacific Strategies & Assessments consultancy, said the rebels' unity and cohesion may be at stake as three MILF sub-groups oppose peace talks.

"It appears that the meeting in Lanao was aimed at specifically addressing rumblings within the MILF on whether to push through with the peace talks after 11 years of on-off negotiations," she told Reuters.

"It will not be surprising if a splinter group emerges in the aftermath or even ahead of a peace deal."

Norodin Alonto Lucman, an author of books on Muslims in the Philippines, told Reuters more rebels were becoming convinced the government was not sincere in finding a solution to the centuries-old Moro problem in the south.

"For these people, no negotiations could solve the problem in Mindanao; fighting for their goal of self-determination could be a much better option," Lucman said.

Murad admitted the uncertainty of concluding a peace pact with the government "is causing anxiety" within the organization.

"This is one reason for holding this consultation meeting," he told reporters on Tuesday, adding the MILF wanted to listen to the views of "our leaders on this delicate situation".

Both the government and rebels may be running out of time.

Kuala Lumpur has threatened to pull out its monitors and end its role as facilitator if the two sides fail to move forward the talks by August 2008.

But analysts say the Philippine government appears distracted by political scandals surrounding the administration of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

They believe further delays in the talks could increase the risks of fighting breaking out between security forces and the impatient rebels.

Buan said Murad's leadership and the unity within the MILF could be at risk if the talks collapsed.

"Any kind of challenge to the present MILF leadership would likely be the offshoot of the peace talks dilemma," she said.

Buan said Murad appeared to have convinced the majority of the MILF field commanders to pursue negotiations, but "it's going to be an uphill battle".