Philippines: Southern Oscillations


Dr Ron May

One of the significant achievements of the Ramos administration was the negotiation of an agreement, in 1996, with the leader of the Muslim separatist Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), Nur Misuari, which was widely heralded as bringing an end to the long-standing conflict in the southern Philippines. The agreement established a Southern Philippines Council of Peace and Development (SPCPD) covering the fourteen provinces and nine cities which form the geographical basis of the Moro claim for a separate Bangsa Moro. Misuari was appointed head of the SPCPD and was subsequently elected governor of the earlier-established Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), which comprises only the four predominantly Muslim provinces which voted to become part of the ARMM.

There were, however, two limitations to the 1996 agreement. First, the agreement provided for an eventual plebiscite to decide which of the fourteen provinces and nine cities covered by the SPCPD would opt to become members of the ARMM. The plebiscite was due to be held in 1999, but has been put off until 2000. When, eventually, the plebiscite is held it is likely that, again, only three or four provinces will vote to join. At that stage, it is highly probable that the 1996 agreement will come unstuck. Secondly, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), a breakaway from the mainstream MNLF in the late 1970s, which became increasingly militant in the 1990s, was never a party to the 1996 agreement, and vowed to maintain the armed struggle against the Philippines government.

Since 1996 the Philippines government has made a number of attempts to negotiate a ceasefire and settlement with the MILF, but with a conspicuous lack of success. The most recent of these was scheduled for December 1999, but against a background of escalating armed conflict in Mindanao, the meeting has - like several earlier meetings - been called off by the MILF.

Inspired by the recent vote in East Timor, and by the uprising in Aceh, the MILF has now revived the Moro demand for nothing less than full independence. This is an option which President Estrada has categorically ruled out, arguing that the situations in East Timor and Aceh have no parallel in Mindanao. A planned meeting between Indonesian president Abdurrahman Wahid and MILF leader Salamat Hashim was to be held in November but was cancelled due to military action by the MILF in Mindanao and developments in Aceh.

Increasing tensions in Muslim Mindanao have been further exacerbated by reports of increased insurgent activity in northern Mindanao by the Communist New People's Army. Faced with declining popularity, growing charges of cronyism, challenges from political opponents, and escalating tensions in the South China Sea, a deteriorating internal security situation in Muslim Mindanao is one which President Estrada could well do without.

WATCHPOINT: Further disturbance in Mindanao could further strain the Philippines' relations with its neighbours.


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