Philippine Attacks Show Risks Ahead of Peace Accord Signing

Philippines President Benigno Aquino
Benigno Aquino, president of the Philippines. Photographer: Julian Abram Wainwright/Bloomberg

Philippine President Benigno Aquino will sign a peace deal today with Muslim guerrillas after deadly attacks underscored the obstacles to ending a 40-year insurgency that has blocked investment in the country’s mineral-rich south.

Three soldiers were shot and killed Oct. 13 in Basilan, according to the military, while firearms, explosives and ammunition were seized in a raid on a mining site in Zamboanga del Sur in the southern Philippines, police said. Two people were killed after a bomb exploded in Cagayan de Oro City, also in the nation’s south, on Oct. 11., which authorities said may be connected to blasts in Zamboanga province the previous day.

“Achieving a lasting peace will take time and cannot happen overnight,” said Euben Paracuelles, a Singapore-based economist at Nomura Holdings Inc. “The peace pact is a crucial step that changes perception on Mindanao and adds to the positive sentiment on the Philippines.”

The new accord may yet provide the best chance since 2008 to end an insurgency in the region that has killed as many as 200,000 and frustrated efforts by companies such as Xstrata Plc and Sumitomo Metal Mining Co. to tap an estimated $312 billion in mineral deposits. Aquino also seeks to abolish death squads, contract killings, clan wars and kidnappings by al-Qaeda-affiliated militants as the nation pursues an investment-grade credit rating and faster economic growth.

Rebels to Visit Palace

Aquino welcomed Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak at the presidential palace today, where the two will witness the signing of the peace accord between the Philippine government and Moro Islamic Liberation Front, or MILF. About 200 MILF members will attend, the first time the presidential palace has hosted the rebels, Aquino spokeswoman Abigail Valte said yesterday. About 500 people who traveled from Mindanao held a peace vigil overnight outside the palace, organizers said.

“This is the sound of peace,” MILF Chairman Al Haj Murad Ebrahim told Aquino, as he rang a gong that he presented to the president as a token. Aquino presented Murad with a miniature of an indigenous Filipino house, known as a nipa hut.

The police raised the nation’s security to full alert last week after it received an intelligence report that disgruntled Muslim rebels may have been behind the recent attacks.

The peace accord under Aquino provides a road map for a political entity called the Bangsamoro that will replace a failed Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, or ARMM, set up in 1989. It binds the 11,000-strong MILF to abandon its pursuit of a separate state and lays down the extent of power, revenues and territory of the Muslim region under a bill that needs to be passed by Congress and approved by a local referendum. Aquino seeks to end the rebellion before his term expires in 2016.

Not Comfortable

The al-Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf may be responsible for the Oct. 13 attack in Basilan to “agitate” the military and disrupt security, Captain Alberto Caber, spokesman for the 1st infantry division based in Lambangan, Zamboanga del Sur province, said by phone.

“There are groups that are not comfortable with the framework agreement and this means the problem will go on and on,” Rommel Banlaoi, executive director of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research in Manila, said in a telephone interview.

Nur Misuari, chairman of the Moro National Liberation Front or MNLF, said he won’t start a war in the southern Philippines, even as he labeled MILF members as traitors for agreeing to lay down their arms. “That’s speculation, we are guardians of peace,” he told DZMM radio today.

Conspiracy Claim

The peace deal is a conspiracy between the Philippines and Malaysia, which facilitated the talks, so the latter can keep Sabah and Sarawak, which belonged to his great grandfather, Misuari said.

Misuari, a former governor of the ARMM, headed the MNLF when the group signed a peace deal with the government in 1996. He led a revolt in Sulu province in 2001, for which he was charged with rebellion. He is out on bail.

A former professor of the University of the Philippines, Misuari formed the MNLF more than four decades ago to lobby for an independent Moro state. The MILF, which is the group in agreement with Aquino now, broke away from the MNLF, due to policy differences.

“This deal is a good first step toward peace and probably better than those negotiated before,” said Benito Lim, a political science professor from the Ateneo de Manila University. “Aquino listened to the Muslim insurgents and agreed to try his best to give them what they want,” he said in a telephone interview on Oct. 12.

Civilian Deaths

Congress created the autonomous region or the ARMM in 1989, with only four choosing to become part of the region out of 13 provinces and nine cities that participated in a plebiscite. The 1996 peace deal under then President Fidel Ramos further fragmented the MNLF.

Fighting between troops and renegade members of the MILF forced about 390,000 people from their homes and left 100 civilians dead in Mindanao after the Supreme Court in August 2008 ordered an injunction on a draft agreement between the government of ex-President Gloria Arroyo and the MILF that would have created a Muslim homeland. The court declared the accord unconstitutional two months later.

Poor Island

Catholic settlers outnumber the Muslim population by about five-to-one in Mindanao, the island furthest from Manila that is home to about a quarter of the country’s 100 million people.

About a third of Mindanao’s people said they had nothing to eat for at least one day in the three months to August, the highest rate among the nation’s three main regions, according to a survey by Manila-based polling company Social Weather Stations released Oct. 1. That was up from 24 percent in March 2010, before Aquino was elected.

Malayisa “affirmed its support to the Philippine government’s sustained socio-economic programs, which are designed to foster further economic opportunities and jobs in Mindanao,” the governments said today in a joint statement. Malaysia’s government also urged “businessmen to consider investing in the palm oil, natural rubber, halal industry, infrastructure and other sectors in the region.”

Aquino will probably be kinder to Muslim opponents of the deal, including Misuari, because it was his mother, the late president Corazon Aquino, who started the drive for an autonomous Muslim region, Lim said.

“While some factions have threatened war, the bigger picture is that the majority of Muslims have decided to look for ways to live in peace with mainstream society,” he said.

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