Philippines: Muslim groups seek to mediate in Mindanao crisis

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NGO representatives and religious figures are calling for both sides in conflict to hold further peace talks.

By Claire Delfin (PHR No.9, 24-Oct 08)

Muslim groups are trying to engage with both the government and Muslim rebels in an attempt to restore calm to the troubled island of Mindanao in the south Philippines.

Representatives of non-governmental organisations and religious groups are trying to facilitate an end to the Mindanao crisis which threatens to spiral out of control following the collapse of a peace agreement between the Philippines authorities and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, MILF.

Amoran Andy Andoga, founding chairman and national president of the Filipino Muslim Democratic Alliance, FIMDA (a coalition of Muslim organisations) said that the group was trying to convince the government and the MILF to sit down once again "in the name of peace".

Andoga said he has requested a meeting with President Gloria Arroyo, but has yet to receive a reply.

"We are the people from Mindanao," Andoga told the Philippine Human Rights Reporting Project, PHRRP. "We know the situation. We want to discuss with [Arroyo] the importance of creating another government panel to negotiate with [the] MILF."

The group has also sent representatives to talk to the MILF leadership and urge them back to the negotiating table.

"We hope that MILF will bring themselves down to the level of the people and find out what ordinary Muslims really want," said Andoga.

With the group's experience in dealing with different Muslim communities, Andoga said he already has a sense of what many want - "and it is not the independence that the MILF wants," he said.

"We love the Philippines. We are Filipinos, whether [we] are Christian or Muslim. What we want is a peaceful country," he added.

Fighting broke out in Mindanao after the Supreme Court ruled on October 14 that the so-called Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain, MOA-AD, was unconstitutional.

If signed, the MOA-AD would have created a Muslim region in the south Philippines, which would have had its own judicial system and police force. The so-called Bangsamoro Juridical Entity, BJE, created under the deal would have been able to enter into economic agreements and trade relations with other countries.

However, the Supreme Court ruling maintained that the terms of the agreement breached the country's constitution.

"The associative relationship envisioned between the [ Philippines government] and the BJE [is] unconstitutional, for the concept presupposes that the associated entity [BJE] is a state and implies that the same is on its way to independence," said the court's ruling.

However, according to the MILF, this is not the case.

During a press conference held at its headquarters at Camp Darapanan in North Cotabato in August, the rebel group's leadership argued that the MOA-AD was intended to be a framework agreement and one that proposed only sub-state status rather than full independence.

Following the abandonment of the agreement, Muslim peace advocates stress that negotiations between the MILF and the government must continue.

Religious leaders say they have approached government officials who have been privy to peace talks, including National Security Adviser Norberto Gonzales, as well as MILF heads.

"What is good is that we [Muslim NGOs and religious groups] have the same goal, and that is to convince both panels to talk again. That, at least, avoids any confusion," said Grand Mufti Adbul Wahid Inju of the Assembly of Darul Ifta of the Philippines - the Muslim counterpart of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines

Yet finding a solution acceptable to both sides will not be easy, and lessons will have to be learned from the peace process so far.

Inju said that a major problem with past negotiations is that neither the government nor the rebel group engaged with ordinary Muslims citizens to let them know what the MOA-AD was all about.

"The people didn't understand it fully and so they don't really know if it was right or wrong for the Supreme Court to consider it unconstitutional," said Inju.

In their 90-page decision, the court's judges said there was a lack of public consultation on the agreement as required by law.

However, presidential peace adviser Hermogenes Esperon, who was severely criticised in the Supreme Court decision, rejects the charge that there was a failure on part of the government to communicate. He maintains that well over 100 consultations with various groups were held between 2005 and 2007.

Had the agreement been signed, he said, it would still have had to face a plebiscite, which would have meant there was time for people to learn more about it.

Esperson said that in spite of the government's decision not to sign the agreement, the Arroyo administration was still bent on pursuing negotiations with the MILF.

According to reports, the president has sought to engage the governor of the ARMM and his son, who is also the governor of Maguindanao Province, to act as a go-between in kick-starting talks between Manila and the MILF.

However, according to Esperon and others, further talks can only take place if the MILF surrenders its rebel commanders, including Ameril Umbra Kato, Abdullah Macapaar and Aleem Pangalian. These men are accused of leading attacks in North Cotabato and Lanao Del Norte, killing dozens of people days after the MOA-AD was suspended.

In the meantime, MILF's chief peace negotiator Mohagher Iqbal said the group's leaders will not order their forces to launch attacks in retaliation for the collapse of MOA-AD. Yet at the same time, he stresses that the leadership cannot guarantee its fighters will exercise restraint.

The MILF is "losing moral authority" to restrain their ground commanders, he said. The rebels insist that the initialled MOA-AD is a fait accompli under international law and has to be implemented. It is now considering taking the case to the International Court of Justice, ICJ, or the Organisation of Islamic Conference, OIC.

The scuttling of the peace deal has damaged MILF's trust in the authorities, he said.

"This development [the collapse of the MOA-AD] only highlights the fact that we can't and should not trust the government," he said. "The Supreme Court's decision will not stop the fighting in Mindanao."

Claire Delfin is a television news reporter for the GMA Network.