MANILA, Aug 3 (Reuters) - Peace has become a casualty of a political crisis in the Philippines that is distracting the government from delicate talks with Muslim rebels and undermining optimism of just a few months ago that a deal was within reach.
President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, on the ropes over allegations of wrongdoing and an impeachment case, told the nation last week the process to end three decades of conflict on the southern islands of Mindanao and Sulu was 80 percent done.
That was a surprise to the rebels and to analysts, who say the talks have barely touched on the thorny issues that need to be solved and have now been effectively frozen amid doubts about whether Arroyo's government will last.
"There was optimism in April but now everyone sees how weak the president is," said Zachary Abuza, an expert on Islamic militancy in Southeast Asia at Boston's Simmons College.
A peace deal for Muslim areas in the south is crucial to lifting its people out of poverty, unearthing vast mineral wealth and easing investor concerns about a country seen as a weak link in the fight against Islamic extremism.
But Abuza unfavourably compared Arroyo's handling of the Mindanao peace process with the one in Northern Ireland that last week resulted in the Irish Republican Army calling off its armed struggle after years of intensive political negotiations.
"Peace processes require 100 percent attention from political leaders," he said. "Right now, Mindanao is the furthest thing from her mind."
The government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) declared a breakthrough at Malaysian-brokered talks in April after reaching a consensus on the issue of ancestral domain -- areas recognised as part of a Muslim homeland.
But that was never really in question.
There has been no progress on other issues crucial to a settlement, such as the degree of autonomy for a new Muslim homeland, the role of the military and police, and the fate of the discredited autonomous government born in a 1996 deal.
"This overestimation (by Arroyo) will create a false impression that all the fundamental issues are resolved," MILF chief negotiator Mahaqher Iqbal wrote on the group's Web site.
CEASEFIRE AT RISK
Frustration with the political turmoil in Manila has already prompted communist rebels waging a nationwide insurgency to announce they were giving up on talks with the Arroyo government.
No one expects the MILF to walk away just yet. But analysts say the longer talks are stalled, the more difficult it becomes for the leadership to convince younger, radical members to keep faith in a two-year-old ceasefire.
Malaysia called off a new round of talks set for late last month without giving a reason or setting a new date.
"They (the Malaysians) feel it's a waste of time, and they're not wrong," said Abuza.
Elections next week in the five provinces of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) seem likely to highlight the area's inadequacy as an expression of Muslim political identity.
The winners of the polls for governor, vice governor and district representatives will be decided far more by blood ties, money, violence and vote-padding than by policy manifestos.
It is no coincidence the allegations against Arroyo of election fraud during last year's national polls have centred on alleged irregularities in Mindanao, where local warlords often keep private armies to help secure votes for their patrons.
"I fear for the voters after the elections," said one Mindanao-based development worker who asked not to be named. "It's just so dirty, we cannot hope to have immediate results."
The favourite for ARMM governor, Zhaldy Datu Puti Ampatuan, is the son of a powerful clan leader who is representing Arroyo's ruling coalition.
It would be the first time since a peace agreement with a separate rebel group was signed in 1996 that the governorship has gone to a non-member of that group, the Moro National Liberation Front, underlining growing disillusionment with the deal.
"If anything, it just reinforces the facade of autonomy. Past ARMM elections haven't led to anything tangible," said Abuza. "Elections just seem to reinforce the old clan rivalries. Power is just concentrated in a few old families."
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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