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Tuesday, 19 June, 2001, 22:00 GMT 23:00 UK
Hope for Philippines' Muslim conflict
By Simon Ingram in Camp Abu Bakar, Mindanao
From the thatched roof shack that has served as his office for the past six months, Lieutenant Colonel Roger Salvador looks out towards the jungle-clad mountains that are home to a determined enemy - the guerrillas of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
"They're out there somewhere," says the colonel, gesturing through the heavy tropical rain towards the forests of central Mindanao a few hundred metres away.
Last year, Colonel Salvador's 64th Infantry Battalion took part in the government offensive which forced the MILF to abandon their stronghold of Camp Abu Bakar, a sprawling area of Mindanao countryside.
MILF leaders, including the group's boss, Hashim Salamat, had to flee. But the guerrillas themselves simply melted away into the forest.
Now Colonel Salvador admits ruefully that the army's much-acclaimed victory was a hollow one.
"We don't think that we have annihilated totally the MILF. Maybe we have just scared them away because of our capability. But totally they're still there," the colonel says.
It is because the MILF remains such a potent foe - far more powerful, for example, than the renegade Abu Sayyaf guerrillas currently holding some two dozens hostages on Basilan, just to the south of Mindanao - that President Arroyo's government has been obliged to return to the negotiating table.
The talks due to begin on Wednesday 20 June in the Libyan capital, Tripoli, signal another attempt to resolve an armed insurgency which has cost an estimated 120,000 lives over the past 30 years.
The task facing the negotiators is a daunting one.
Last year's upsurge in hostilities scarcely improved the atmosphere. The all-out offensive launched by then- president Joseph Estrada was hugely popular among the Christian settler population in Mindanao, who today far out-number the island's indigenous Muslims.
Father Eliseo Mercado, a Mindanao-based Jesuit priest and academic closely involved in the peace process, says the Estrada policy fanned the flames of sectarian discord.
"The all-out war really destroyed the bridges of trust and confidence between Muslims and Christians," he says. "People have become polarised again according to their beliefs."
Troops are helping build new stilt houses, complete with corrugated iron roofs, for some of the thousands of people who saw their villages obliterated in the army bombardment.
Only a few of the fragile little structures have been occupied so far.
Thirty-five-year-old Bunga Buliok, together with her husband and five children, returned in April after spending more than a year in evacuation centres.
Her new house stands just yards from the burned ruins of the one the family formerly occupied.
Elsewhere, army bulldozers are busily levelling the muddy, rutted tracks which meander through Camp Abu Bakar. A mosque devastated by the assault on a nearby rebel position has been painstakingly rebuilt.
Such gestures are meant to win over Muslim hearts and minds, and convey the message that Manila represents more than a conquering army.
But it is almost certainly too little, too late. Centuries of oppression and neglect have made Muslim parts of Mindanao the most impoverished and destitute areas of the country.
Christian farmers have gobbled up huge swathes of agricultural land previously owned by Muslims. Illiteracy and unemployment are rife.
Like her predecessors, President Arroyo has pledged to bring greater economic development to Mindanao.
But attorney Lanang Ali, one of the MILF's senior negotiators in the Tripoli talks, says the problem has gone beyond mere economics.
"The only solution here is a negotiated political settlement of this problem," he says.
"The (Muslim) people here in Mindanao should be asked in a referendum which government they want to establish for themselves in the exercise of their right to self-determination."
In fact the MILF are divided.
Doves and hawks
Hardliners are committed to the group's longstanding objective of a separate Islamic state covering parts of Mindanao and other smaller islands where Muslims are in a majority.
But other leaders seem to concede that such an ambition is unrealistic, and that greater autonomy - including the introduction of Islamic Sharia law - would be an acceptable compromise.
"The independent Islamic state is an easy slogan. And I believe there are 1,001 ways to respond to this aspiration," he says.
Chance for peace
Father Mercado points out that the make-up of the MILF negotiating team - including, for the first time, a Christian participant - suggests a welcome readiness to compromise.
The stance of the government has also given rise to optimism.
For example, Mrs Arroyo's administration has conceded the MILF's demand to open the talks on neutral territory. Libya was an obvious choice because of its close involvement in previous efforts to resolve the Mindanao problem.
Gunter Hecker, country director for the Asian Development Bank, says for the first time there is a real chance of a breakthrough in a conflict that has bedevilled the Philippines since the Spanish conquistadors conquered Mindanao 400 years ago.
"Everybody knows war is not the solution, and this government senses that there is a chance for peace. So far, it seems good progress is being made."
Even the brutal hostage drama under way in nearby Basilan does not appear to have undermined the negotiating process.
The MILF has condemned the Abu Sayyaf, while suggesting that the bandit group's brutal tactics are the desperate acts of a Muslim community driven to acts of desperation by long years of government oppression.
No one doubts the rewards that a successful outcome to the peace negotiations would bring to a part of the country rich in natural resources.
"If you talk to the people of Mindanao, they want peace above all," says Minnie Portales of the World Vision Development Foundation, one of the most active NGO groups in Mindanao.
"There can be no social or economic development without peace, and now it looks as though everyone is committed to working on this."
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