By Vaudine England
Fierce fighting erupted in the southern Philippines at the start of August
Just over a month ago, prospects for peace in the troubled southern Philippines looked brighter than in a long time.
A Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain had been drawn up, extending the land area to be administered by autonomous Muslim leaders.
Mediators had helped maintain a ceasefire; a compromise definition of the eternally sticky concept of Ancestral Domain appeared possible.
Now, the MoA is dead, the negotiating panel abolished, the ceasefire abandoned and hopes for peace dashed.
"It was in 1996 that then President (Fidel) Ramos reached a peace deal with the MNLF (Moro National Liberation Front). Negotiations resumed under President (Gloria) Arroyo in 2001.
"So now we've lost 12 years, we've lost ground, we've lost goodwill," said Marites Vitug, author of several books about Mindanao and editor of Newsbreak, a Philippines news magazine.
The MNLF and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) have been fighting for greater autonomy in the south for four decades. Muslims make up about 5% of the mainly Catholic Philippines and have long felt marginalised.
In the past few months, negotiations between the Arroyo government and the MILF appeared to be making progress - until the Philippine Supreme Court blocked ratification.
On 5 August, government officials and foreign diplomats flocked to Malaysia - which mediated the process - for the planned signing of the MoA , only to retreat red-faced.
The court was responding to virulent protests by Christian communities in areas of Mindanao that the agreement would convert into Muslim-controlled lands.
Conflict immediately broke out on the ground, with Philippine military claims that Muslim rebels were occupying villages being countered by MILF complaints that the government could not be trusted.
With perhaps half a million people displaced and some hundreds killed, observers now concur that two MILF commanders - Kato and Bravo - did launch attacks in Lanao del Norte and North Cotabato.
The MILF leadership has blamed the attacks on what it calls these two "renegade" commanders, but refuses to hand them over.
"We were informed that long before 5 August, the military had been moving troops into an area in Lanao del Norte that was close to an MILF camp and so the MILF shored up their forces - this could explain why hostilities were so quick to break out," said Amina Rasul, director of the Philippine Council for Islam and Democracy, a Manila-based think tank.
What she cannot understand is why long-standing mechanisms of ceasefire enforcement were not activated, mediators brought in and the violence stopped.
"Instead, both sides went at each other. Instead of cool heads prevailing, military action immediately took place," Ms Rasul said.
With the peace process in tatters, analysts are now trying to work out where it all went wrong.
Not only have communities been shattered by the worst outbreak of fighting in five years, but the credibility of both sides has been perhaps fatally damaged.
For MILF commander Ebrahim Murad, his ability to keep his group united after the death of his admired predecessor Salamat Hashim had rested in part on his ability to deliver benefits from the peace process.
His achievement of a deal had raised his stock considerably, and its collapse weakens him and the moderate voices for peace within the MILF.
As for Ms Arroyo, explanations for her government's failure to achieve peace in the south range from conspiracy to incompetence.
Her supporters insist that their intentions in pushing the MoA through government were honourable, but when the MILF launched attacks on villages last month, the armed forces had no choice but to react to protect civilians.
The government says it cannot negotiate further with groups that conduct violent attacks and that the focus is now to talk with "communities".
The government's new approach, said Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita, was that talks with the MILF could only resume after its disarmament, demobilisation and rehabilitation.
"It was like we were being blackmailed and threatened at the expense of the civilians," he said.
Outside government, determining moral ascendancy is much more difficult, with some analysts suggesting the deal was designed to fail.
A devious plan is attributed to Ms Arroyo, based on an unsupported claim that it suited the government for the peace deal to collapse - that her government was eager for a return to fighting to justify a declaration of martial law to prolong her time in office.
"We look at her track record of promises and broken promises, and it doesn't give us confidence that she has put the interests of the country as paramount," said Ms Rasul.
But some analysts discount the conspiracy approach entirely.
Aid agencies are trying to help communities displaced by the violence
"I don't buy any of these theories; my own conclusion is that there was simply no strategic thinking about any of this," said Ms Vitug.
She argues that throughout the process, Ms Arroyo sent mixed signals to her negotiators on the deal.
Other analysts suggest the Arroyo administration appeared to lose interest in the process from time to time and failed to build necessary support and alliances to see the deal through.
"Maybe a more popular president could have pulled this off," said Ms Vitug.
Return to war?
Predicting what happens next is a fool's game, with some analysts saying a return to all-out fighting is imminent, a split in the MILF likely, and the link-up of MILF splinter groups with radical Islamists around South East Asia a real danger.
Philippine defence officials say they intend to pour troops into Lanao del Norte and North Cotabato in order to dampen tensions and protect civilians.
Some leading generals, committed to the peace process, would not want to see the MILF break up or forge links with regional terror groups.
These generals note that the MILF is a local ethnic insurgency that wants peace, and the door to future talks must be kept open.
If that attitude prevails, fresh outbreaks of violence could be limited and, though undoubtedly weakened, the MILF leadership could keep a leash on its younger, more radical members.
Two presidential advisers are supposed to visit Kuala Lumpur to discuss the naming of a new negotiating panel.
But while the veneer of a continuing process exists, any return to talks will take time.
What is certain is that mutual trust has been destroyed for now, and many analysts are concluding that little positive will be achieved until after the Arroyo government's term ends in 2010.