In the Philippines, the government and the country’s largest Muslim rebel group have been trying to reach a peace deal through nearly 15 years of on-and-off talks. In recent months, there have been signs of hope.
The Moro Islamic Liberation Front has tempered its call for total independence and the government is offering them more autonomy. But the standoff continues in one of the longest-running insurgencies in the world, which is taking its toll on ordinary citizens.
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At six o’clock, the Muslim call to prayer permeates the open windows of a building on the grounds of an Islamic school in Cotabato City.
Inside the building, a woman in her late 60’s recalls the first time she was forced to leave her home because of fighting between Muslim insurgents and the Philippine government.
Speaking in the Maguindanaoan dialect with the help of interpreters, “Auntie,” as she is nicknamed, says she became a widow in the 1970s when martial law was first declared under the Marcos government, to quash the separatist movement.
She says she can still remember during that time that they were living harmoniously, but during the conflict they had to leave it all behind. She says they left their water buffalos and cows and even their simple livelihood.
That was the start of bitter fighting that has deeply affected families in this part of the country.
The last big clash between government and the rebels in 2008, made “Auntie” an "internally displaced person." She is one of thousands of people forced from their homes during times of sporadic violence. Many like her can no longer keep track of how often they have fled during nearly four decades of fighting.
A World Bank study of the conflict in Muslim-majority Mindanao reported that by 2005, more than two million people had been displaced and more than 120-thousand people died from the conflict.
In Southern Philippines Insurgency, Locals Are No Strangers to Deadlocked TalksAbout 10 kilometers northeast of Cotabato City at the Moro Islamic Liberation Front’s Camp Darapanan, dozens of fighters salute their leader, Chairman Murad Ebrahim.
The chairman is holding a rare news briefing to highlight the most recent impasse between the MILF and the Philippine government. He summarizes what locals say this fight is about.
“They want to govern themselves," Murad says. "They want to determine their political future. They want to determine their way of life. So this is the aspiration of the Bangsamoro people.”
The rebels coined the term “Bangsamoro” to include Muslims, indigenous peoples and settlers who live in the region.
Muslims in the south fought off colonization by the Spaniards in the 1500s and the Americans in the late 1800s, but not without losing lands they had claimed and their ruling system. They spent most of the 20th century trying to reclaim what they lost.
Today, Murad says they no longer want complete independence from the Philippines. Instead, they want a sub-state with its own court system, while relying on central government for national defense, postal services and currency.
The problem in 2008 was that their land claims and the proposed court system were struck down by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional. Two MILF commanders who were unhappy with the decision allegedly started attacks that led to skirmishes with government.
MILF Vice Chairman Ghazali Jaafar says the longer time passes without a peace accord, the greater the chance some commanders among their ranks will lose confidence and break away.
“If they will no longer be covered by the agreements between the MILF and the government of the Republic of the Philippines, including the ceasefire agreement, then that is very dangerous,” he says.
In late August, the MILF kicked out a high-ranking, well-respected commander who started his own splinter group and called a jihad for complete separation from the Philippines.
Also, Chairman Murad warns that, while talks stall, the international monitoring team that enforces the cease fire could end its term early.
“It is but natural that it will go back to armed struggle," he says. "And that is what we do not want because as far as the MILF leadership now is concerned we feel that we have gone far already in the political struggle. Meaning we have spent 14 years in this. We have accomplished so many things. And if we go back to war again, then everything will be reduced to nothing.”
In early August, Chairman Murad and President Benigno Aquino met in a Tokyo suburb. It was the first such meeting between a sitting president and the rebel leader and they agreed that peace talks must be fast-tracked.
But three weeks later, the next round of negotiations ended abruptly.
MILF negotiators rejected the proposal for expanded autonomy of the impoverished Muslim Mindanao region with plans for major economic development, a lasting peace accord and historical acknowledgement of their struggle. Officials said they could not agree to create a sub-state, because that would require changing the Philippine constitution.
MILF negotiators recommended that their central committee reject the proposal. Lead government negotiator Marvic Leonen says this is the normal course of negotiations.
“I can see where the MILF’s and the government’s proposals can converge," he says. "I can see that if the MILF understands the context of government sincerely and honestly, there might be more breakthroughs that can happen."
Leonen says if the government’s draft is officially rejected, then he does not know of a reason to go back to the negotiating table. So far, there is no official rejection and both sides have indicated they want to forge ahead, while also criticizing each other.
Meanwhile, Auntie and other peasants in her predicament are pinning their hopes on lasting peace between the MILF and the government. But after 14 years of on-again-off-again negotiations, prospects remain slim.