Preserving the Southern Philippines’ Threatened Peace Deal

Preserving the Southern Philippines’ Threatened Peace Deal

As the world was fixated on the Beijing Olympics and Russia's incursion into Georgia, a fledgling peace process between the Philippine government and Muslim rebels fighting for autonomy in the country's restive south was beginning to unravel. The Philippine Supreme Court's suspension of a key peace agreement fanned the flames of violence in the region, sending insurgent factions storming into villages. One hundred fifty thousand people fled their looted and torched homes, while the Philippine military pounded rebel hideouts with heavy artillery fire. The United Nations expressed alarm, while the International Red Cross said more than 80,000 people were displaced.

The United States should be concerned at the recent developments in the 30-year bloody struggle between the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) rebel group and the Philippine government. After all, it was Washington that granted independence to a unified, majority-Christian Philippine state in 1946 despite calls by Moro Muslims for a separate status. These grievances later crystallized into a full-blown insurgency. The Philippines is a major non-NATO ally that also initially committed troops to Washington's unpopular war in Iraq. Manila has also served as a key player in the global war on terrorism in Southeast Asia, a region home to a quarter of the world's Muslims. After the MILF stronghold in the southern Philippines was designated a "terrorist safe haven", the U.S. assisted the Philippine military in wiping out al-Qaeda-linked groups Jemaah Islamiyah and Abu Sayyaf with groundbreaking success.

But yet the MILF's nationalist struggle continues to be a bone in Manila's throat. Despite a ceasefire inked in 2003, a final peace agreement spelling out the specific terms of autonomy has thus far proven elusive. The current version, known locally as the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD), hands over autonomous control to the MILF, ceding it the right to control natural resources and to establish an independent police force. While it is a milestone in the peace process, its provisions have been met with fierce protests and angry petitions, leading the Supreme Court to issue a temporary abrogation. Opponents argue that the deal is unconstitutional as only the government has the right to control national resources. They also view the independent police force provision with suspicion given the MILF's shady links with other al-Qaeda-linked terrorist groups in the Philippines. Some observers have expressed skepticism that the MILF will be able to muster the unity to preserve long-term peace given the organization's chronic factionalism, while others see autonomy as a direct challenge to the very concept of the Philippine state.

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