Fighting flares in southern Philippines

By Carlos H. Conde
International Herald Tribune
Published: December 26, 2008

MANILA: A series of rebel attacks this past week in the southern Philippines that left least nine civilians dead underscores the need for the government and Muslim separatists to resume peace negotiations, analysts said Friday.

While civilian casualties are not uncommon in the troubled region of Mindanao, some analysts view recent actions as the insurgents’ way of pressuring the government to restart the peace process that has been stalled since August, when the government nullified a landmark agreement that would have expanded a Muslim autonomous region.

On Tuesday, members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the main group that has been fighting for Muslim self-rule in the predominantly Roman Catholic region since the 1970s, attacked villages in Sultan Kudarat township, killing nine civilians and wounding more, the military said.

The next day, Christmas Eve, the rebels reportedly staged another attack, this time in the town of Alamada.

“The attacks came while the people were setting off firecrackers. The attackers timed their attacks during the revelry,” said Ernesto Concepcion, mayor of Alamada, according to ABS-CBN television.

The military said the rebels attacked other areas on Christmas Day, firing rocket-propelled grenades at power lines in Sultan Kudarat and looting.

“They ransacked the houses of civilians and extorted money from them. They even stole the guns of retired soldiers living in the area,” Lieutenant Colonel Ernesto Torres Jr., an army spokesman, said Friday.

Officials of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front denied that its forces had tried to attack civilians. Eid Kabalu, a spokesman for the front, instead blamed the military for stepping up its offensives in the past several days.

Julkipli Wadi, an analyst and professor at the Institute of Islamic Studies at the University of Philippines, said, “The recent attacks may be viewed as a strategic offensive” by the insurgents to pressure the government to restart the peace process.

However, Kristian Herbolzheimer, an adviser on peace processes with the Initiatives for International Dialogue, a Mindanao-based group that monitors the negotiations, said more information was needed.

“The fragility of any peace process is that it can easily be affected by episodes of violence that can either be a product of rogue elements who want to put pressure on the government or by spoilers who want it to derail completely,” he said. He urged a restoration of cease-fire monitors, with new authority to carry out “binding fact-finding missions” to determine the truth behind the attacks.

In recent months, fighting between separatists and the government has killed dozens from both sides and displaced more than half a million Filipinos from their homes, with tens of thousands in refugee camps in several provinces.

Negotiations broke down in August after the government rescinded the agreement that would have enlarged a Muslim autonomous region.

Many Filipinos, particularly Christian politicians and local officials, opposed the agreement, calling it a sellout of the Philippine patrimony. The issue went to the Supreme Court, which ruled that the pact was unconstitutional.

Since then, the government has been trying to repair the situation. Last week, the government announced a new negotiating panel, in the hope that talks with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front could restart early next year.

But rebel leaders say any future negotiations will have to resume from where both sides left off – with the territorial agreement that was knocked down by the Supreme Court.

“Despite the Supreme Court’s declaration of the agreement as unconstitutional, the new government peace panel has no choice but to make the MOA-AD as a frame of reference for the new round of negotiations,” said Wadi, the University of the Philippines professor, using the acronym for the territorial agreement. If not, Wadi added, “there is no substantial peace agreement that can be expected.”

Herbolzheimer said both sides must work to overcome the profound mistrust that underlies the deadlock. He said opposition to the territorial agreement has “severely affected the trust of many Moros” – a term for Filipino Muslims – “in the existing institutions of the Philippines.”

“At the same time,” he added, “the majority of the non-Moro public opinion remains with strong prejudices against Muslims.”

Communists mark 40 years

The Communist Party of the Philippines, which leads one of the longest Communist insurgencies in the world, marked its 40th anniversary Friday by making public a five-year plan that it said should advance its aim of establishing a Marxist state, Carlos H. Conde reported from Manila.

It said that under the plan, government and military officials who committed “treason, plunder and human rights violations” would be subjected to what it called “revolutionary justice.” It also said that it intended to establish rebel forces in each of the country’s 168 congressional districts.

But some say the Communist movement, whose armed wing, the New People’s Army, is down to only 5,000 regular combatants compared with more than 10,000 two decades ago, is too weak to carry out such a plan.

“I don’t see where they would get the wherewithal to do something like this,” said Scott Harrison, managing director of Pacific Strategies and Assessments, a risk consultancy group.

About Carlos H. Conde

Researcher at Human Rights Watch (@condeHRW @hrw_ph). Former journalist (NYT, IHT, among others).
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