Philippines: Mindanao Peace Talks Remain in Limbo


Kit Collier

With her inauguration on 30 June, one of the benefits of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo's election win should be a reanimated Mindanao peace process. Much of Arroyo's weak performance across the board during her first term is put down to the nature of her ascension to power in a January 2001 civil-military uprising, and consequent lack of an independent mandate. Her indebtedness to the armed forces was said to place special constraints on security policy options. These excuses no longer stand, but there are other formidable obstacles to peace in Mindanao.

Early progress in peace talks with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in the months after the fall of Arroyo's predecessor, Joseph Estrada who had launched an all-out offensive against the rebels in 2000 stalled amidst growing concern over the MILF's international terror ties. By February 2003, the war resumed in earnest, punctuated by major terrorist attacks on Davao City in March and April 2003, which killed 38.

'Back-channel' meetings have continued since the end of formal talks in March 2002, but the Davao bombings, and persistent allegations of MILF links with Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) together with the issue of control over the MILF's former 'Buliok complex' headquarters captured by the army in February 2003 still stand in the way of long-awaited negotiations in Kuala Lumpur. These were supposed to resume soon after the latest cease-fire in July 2003; anticipated talks in August 2003, January 2004 and April 2004 all failed to eventuate.

The armed forces' occupation of Buliok is slowly being replaced by a police presence more acceptable to the MILF. But after several reinvestigations, state prosecutors refuse to drop charges against the MILF leadership for involvement in the Davao bombings, and evidence of JI-MILF collaboration continues to mount. Also disturbing are growing indications of a revitalised Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), which claims responsibility for the destruction of a ferry in Manila harbour on 27 February 2004. More than 100 passengers died in the disaster.

The death of the MILF's founding chairman, Salamat Hashim, in July 2003, further complicates the picture. Already loose-knit, it is likely that the MILF has begun a gradual disintegration. Some elements may gravitate towards an enhanced autonomy arrangement building on Manila's 1996 peace treaty with the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF); but others are certain to bolster their ties with JI and the ASG.

No longer a lame-duck president in debt to the armed forces, Arroyo now has the opportunity to build a long-term consensus around an enhanced autonomy agreement. In the short-term, it is essential to identify and isolate those extremist elements in the MILF who, in concert with JI and the ASG, are determined to prevent such a consensus forming.

Manila and the MILF agreed to form an Ad Hoc Joint Action Group (AHJAG) in back-channel talks in Cyberjaya, Malaysia, on 6 May 2002. Mandated to 'pursue and apprehend criminal elements suspected of hiding in MILF areas,' the AHJAG has still not begun functioning more than two years later. Recent meetings of the two sides' Coordinating Committees on Cessation of Hostilities (CCCH) in February and May 2004 have discussed creating Interim Action Teams (I-ACT) pending the operationalisation of AHJAG amidst ongoing reports of JI activity in the Mount Kararao area.

WATCHPOINT: With the MILF officially denying any association with JI, joint action against terrorists taking refuge in MILF territory would be an acid test for the MILF's new leadership around Al-Haj Murad.


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