Muslim rebels in the Philippines have agreed to a cease-fire with the government in their decades-long separatist war. While the truce is seen as a major step toward long lasting peace in the troubled Muslim-dominated southern Philippines, experts caution that past experience of other former rebels who have been integrated into the government shows the process will be fraught with problems.
With the help of Malaysia and Libya, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the second largest Muslim group in the Philippines, has signed an agreement with the government that may finally end 30 years of fighting on the southern island of Mindanao.
Its rival rebel group, the Moro National Liberation Front, had already signed a peace accord with the government in 1996. Under that agreement, the MNLF was given autonomy over a special region made up of four mainly Muslim provinces.
Now five years on, critics both from inside and outside the MNLF say the peace accord did not result in the promised economic development and stability in the south.
Allegations of mismanagement and corruption have dogged the leadership of MNLF chairman Nur Misuari - who won election as governor of the region. Christians and indigenous communities in the area remain unconvinced of the Muslims' ability to bring about effective change in the local government to help the impoverished local economy.
Farouk Hussin, an MNLF political official admits, the situation in the autonomous region might be worse since the peace. "The most important part of the agreement in 1996 is the socio-economic component," Mr. Hussin says. "And this is still very much awaited by our people. In fact, if you ask people in the area about peace and order, there is deterioration of peace and order, socioeconomic development did not come."
Political analysts, including Patricio Abinales, say part of the problem is that after years of fighting in the jungles and living in exile, MNLF leaders were not ready for mainstream politics and day to day administration of government. "It turned out that they are good rebels but bad administrators," he says. "Running a revolution is different from governing."
Some in the MNLF blame the government for failing to live up to its pledge to provide development funds. They say they feel that Manila just used the 1996 peace deal to neutralize the MNLF with no real intention to help the impoverished south.
Mashur Jundam, an MNLF leader involved in the 1996 peace negotiations, says this new truce between the MILF and the government may not bring about any better results. He warns the MILF should be wary of following the same path. "The MILF has seen us put our arm into a snake hole, do you think they would do the same," Mr. Jundam asks. "What the Philippine government has to offer they have already given us. The same Muslim area they are talking about is already under our 1996 agreement. What else is left for the MILF".
But as seasoned fighters, used to hardships and rough living conditions of the Mindanao jungle, the disappointing experience under the five-year autonomous experiment has not lessened their resolve to reach genuine self-determination for the Muslim people. The MNLF's Mr. Jundam says they remain committed to the 1996 peace agreement, but will work for more. "We will continue with the struggle because it is the teaching of the holy Koran," he says. "A community cannot be called an Islamic community unless it is ruled by the sharia [Islamic law]. We have to be Muslim. We have to struggle for that, for our children and for our grandchildren."
The Philippine Muslims hope they can overcome factionalism that has hindered their effectiveness as a political force. To that end, last week, a group from the MNLF and the MILF signed a unity agreement. That agreement, while not a merger between the two forces, is an attempt to coordinate goals to give them leverage in future negotiations with the government.
President Gloria Arroyo has welcomed the pact, saying she believes it will not only facilitate better communication with her government but will help stabilize the south in order to attract badly needed investment.