Philippines Races Time to Forge Peace as Mindanao Fighting Rages

The Philippines faces time limits to complete a peace pact this year with the country’s largest Muslim rebel group, as clashes in Mindanao between government troops and other separatists continued for a second week.

“We are working on a tight timeframe,” Miriam Coronel-Ferrer, the head of the government’s peace panel said in a video press conference from Kuala Lumpur today. While many issues on power-sharing and disarming the Moro Islamic Liberation Front were resolved after 10 days of talks, agreement is yet to be reached on those two matters before a final deal can be sealed, she said.

Talks will resume soon, and amid the violence in Mindanao both parties are “acutely aware” of the importance of ensuring that this peace agreement serves the interest of all Muslims, Coronel-Ferrer said. The agreement on wealth-sharing was signed in July.

Four decades of insurgency in Mindanao has killed as many as 200,000 and stifled development of the resource-rich island. Ending one of Southeast Asia’s most entrenched conflicts could help bring investors to Mindanao and unlock mineral deposits worth an estimated $300 billion.

Mindanao accounted for 14.4 percent of Philippine output in 2012, according to government data. The Zamboanga peninsula, which contributed 2.1 percent to the economy last year, expanded 12.4 percent, the fastest among the nation’s 17 regions, the data show.

Muslims account for 5 percent of the Philippines’ 103 million-strong population, according to estimates by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.

Zamboanga Clashes

Fighting in Zamboanga City between government forces and the Moro National Liberation Front, founded by Nur Misuari more than 40 years ago to push for an independent Muslim state, has killed at least 104 people and displaced more than 126,000 since Sept. 9, according to police.

The government will ensure all stakeholders including the MNLF are consulted when legislation creating Bangsamoro, an expanded autonomous region, is crafted, presidential peace adviser Teresita Deles said on Sept. 11.

“The work is cut out for the government and the MILF to come up with an inclusive and effective agreement that is acceptable to the Moro people,” Ramon Casiple, executive director of the Institute for Political and Electoral Reform in Manila said by phone. “The realistic assumption is there will always be those who will oppose but hopefully it’s not on a scale that will create a rebel group that can mount a major rebellion.”

Bus Depot Explosion

Three people were killed and one injured in an explosion at a bus depot in Zamboanga yesterday, police said.

Chief Inspector Ariel Huesca of the Zamboanga police said today 170 hostages held by rebels have been rescued. Police also reported 140 MNLF rebels were either captured or surrendered and 78 were killed.

President Benigno Aquino has spent the past week in Zamboanga to direct operations after deploying his interior and defense secretaries to the region on Sept. 9. He ordered the military to investigate why the MNLF seem not to be running out of ammunition, the Philippine Daily Inquirer reported today.

Fifteen military and police were killed since Sept. 9 and 116 wounded as the rebels seized civilians, fired mortar rounds and torched homes. Eleven civilians were killed and 70 injured since the clashes begun in the past two weeks, Huesca said.

Before the Sept. 9 fighting began, the peace panel expected to forge a peace agreement soon, according to its statement on Aug. 25.

“Our goal is to put in place the new institution by 2016,” Ferrer said, referring to Bangsamoro. “We know we have to finish this as soon as possible. We are taking measures that will help us fast-track the process as we continue the negotiations.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Joel Guinto in Manila at jguinto1@bloomberg.net; Clarissa Batino in Manila at cbatino@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Stanley James at sjames8@bloomberg.net Rosalind Mathieson at rmathieson3@bloomberg.net;

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