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Philippine Efforts to End Muslim Separatism Suffer Setback - 2001-11-23

Efforts by the Philippine government to end decades of separatist fighting in the south have suffered a setback this week. There were unexpected clashes between the military and members of a faction of a Muslim group that had signed a peace deal with the government five years ago.

As residents in the Muslim autonomous region in the southern Philippines get ready to vote Monday for a new governor, the specter of renewed violence looms.

This past week, members of a faction of the Moro National Liberation Front, or MNLF - a group that had signed a peace agreement with the government five years ago in exchange for autonomy - clashed with government forces on the island of Jolo, killing more than 100 people.

Authorities say the incident was an effort by their leader, Nur Misuari, to stop elections for a new governor in the Muslim autonomous region. Mr. Misuari is not a candidate for re-election because he lost crucial support among MNLF leaders and has been opposed by the Philippine government for alleged poor administration.

The 1996 peace deal with the MNLF and the creation of the Muslim autonomous region had been one of the few successes Manila had hoped to build upon in the troubled south.

The government has recently made progress in talks with another Muslim separatist group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, and has been stepping up military action against the Abu Sayyaf rebels.

Analysts say this new fighting with the MNLF is bound to complicate the government's efforts to end close to three decades of violence in the south and re-start development in the region.

Julkipli Wadi, a professor at the Islamic Institute of the University of the Philippines, says the situation is critical. "Peace is now hanging on a balance," he says. "We are going back to the pre-1996 period when the MNLF was outside the political fence of the Philippine political system, and a threat to the government."

Concerns are growing that Mr. Misuari's continued influence in the Muslim community could unite Muslim factions against the government. There have been reports that the MILF and the Abu Sayyaf, whose members already include former MNLF rebels, have offered to join arms with Mr. Misuari's group.

Mr. Wadi says tribal and family relations intertwine in the south and such an alliance is possible.

But the presidential adviser for the peace process, Eduardo Ermita, rejects the scenario. He stresses that this year's truce with the MILF is holding. "The MILF is living up to the agreement on the cease-fire," he says. "They have not been reported as having a tie-up or a merger with the MNLF."

Since the 1996 peace agreement with the MNLF, which established the Muslim autonomous region in the south, the Philippine government has been trying to entice the MILF to drop separatist demands and settle for a similar arrangement. But critics say the lack of economic development under Mr. Misuari's administration may discourage the MILF.

Additionally, observers such as Philippine political science professor Miriam Coronel Ferrer, say the threat of renewed fighting with Mr. Misuari's forces makes it hard for the government of President Gloria Arroyo to promote economic development of the region. "It is going to be difficult given the fact that it has of course, the economy to take care of and now it has to put a lot of resources to deal with the consequence of war," she says.

President Arroyo was scheduled to visit the region Friday but had to cancel the trip for security reasons. Despite the outbreak of violence, election officials say the vote will push ahead Monday, but turnout is expected to be low.