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Tuesday, 19 June, 2001, 22:00 GMT 23:00 UK
Hope for Philippines' Muslim conflict
A Muslim family recently returned to their war-ravaged village.
Thousands of villagers live in humble conditions
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.

Everybody knows war is not the solution, and this government senses that there is a chance for peace

"We've been observing major MILF movements consolidating just adjacent to this area. That would indicate they're still preparing, maybe for an offensive."

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.

Hollow victory

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.


For now, an informal ceasefire is holding, but violations are reported almost daily.

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.

Talks

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.

Camp Abu Bakar
The army overran the rebel's main camp last year
Time and again, failure has awaited efforts to reconcile Muslim Mindanao's demand for secession from a nation that is predominantly Christian, and the Manila government's determination to maintain its sovereignty over the region.

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.

Sectarian discord

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."

Army bulldozer repairs Mindanao road
The army repairs a road damaged in the conflict
Back in Camp Abu Bakar, the army is now trying to undo the damage, and win back the confidence of a civilian population still traumatised by the conflict.

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.

Rebuilding lives

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.


Centuries of oppression and neglect have made Muslim parts of Mindanao the most impoverished and destitute areas of the country

"It's very hard," she says. "We can harvest our coconuts, but we can't work our rice paddy because our buffalo have disappeared."

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.

Too late

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.

Referendum

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.

Family of returnees in the former MILF stronghold of Camp Abu Bakar
Returnees to Camp Abu Bakar need a helping hand
Father Mercado believes the MILF moderates are in the ascendant, fuelling hopes for progress both in Tripoli, and during a negotiating process certain to last many months.

"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."

Hostage crisis

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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See also:

27 Mar 01 | Asia-Pacific
Philippines rebels agree truce
20 Feb 01 | Asia-Pacific
Arroyo orders ceasefire with rebels
09 Jul 00 | Asia-Pacific
Moro separatist base 'captured'
31 May 00 | Asia-Pacific
Philippines rejects truce with rebels
20 Feb 01 | Asia-Pacific
Southern Philippines' uneasy history
20 Jan 01 | Asia-Pacific
Challenges confronting Arroyo
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