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Tuesday, 20 February, 2001, 08:01 GMT
Southern Philippines' uneasy history
Philippine soldiers
Military force has failed to crush the rebellion
By South-east Asia correspondent Jonathan Head

The decision by the Philippine Government to order a ceasefire in the southern Philippines brings to an end the hard-line approach to the rebellion there taken by the military for the past year.

But there have been previous attempts to reach a peace agreement in the south which have all so far failed to end the fighting.

Philippine hostages
Hostage takings have attracted media attention to the rebels
The armed conflict between Muslim separatists and the army in the southern Philippines has continued since the days of martial law under former President Marcos nearly 30 years ago.

Muslims on the island of Mindanao have long resented being ruled by Manila.

The main rebel group, the Moro National Liberation Front, used to receive training and, allegedly, weapons from Libya.

Autonomy

But in 1996 the MNLF signed a peace agreement with the government in return for the creation of an autonomous Muslim region to be run by members of the rebel group.

However, two splinter groups remained outside that agreement:

  • The larger Moro Islamic Liberation Front, or MILF, has continued to wage an armed campaign against the Philippines military and controls sizeable areas of the island of Mindanao with the support of the local Muslim population.
  • The smaller and more radical Abu Sayyaf group operates in the Sulu Islands, to the south-west of Mindanao, which have a long tradition of piracy and kidnapping.
It was the Abu Sayyaf which abducted a group of foreign tourists from nearby Malaysia last year.

Many Muslims have continued to support the MILF because they are disappointed by the lack of economic development in the autonomous region.

The army increased its attacks on the MILF last year, in part because of its concern over the increased strength of the rebel group but also because then-President Joseph Estrada believed that a tougher approach would increase his popularity.

But despite some successes, the army has been unable to crush the rebels and has in the process made itself very unpopular with the Muslim community in the south.

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Gloria Arroyo: Contrast in styles
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