Militants threaten Manila peace deal

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Manju Shukla
Date  16 Oct.2012
Framework agreement formally signed on Monday by the Philippine government and rebel Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) aims to end a decades-long conflict through the establishment of a new autonomous political entity known as Bangsamoro on the southern island of Mindanao. Despite widespread optimism both at home and abroad about the agreement's peace prospects, a number of outstanding issues still mitigate against the deal's long-term success.

Those spoilers include the potential for radical MILF fighters to defect from the leadership who brokered the deal and continue their armed struggle; a resurgent Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), which believes its own peace agreement has been undermined by the deal and has threatened to resume hostilities; the breakaway Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), who under their radical leader Ameril Kato have threatened to

 carry out attacks on civilians if the agreement passes; and Abu Sayyaf, the country's al-Qaeda-inspired Islamist insurgency which appears to have launched a new international recruitment drive.

The framework agreement is the result of over 15 years of negotiations and will be implemented by a 15-member Transition Commission. No timetable has been announced for disarming the MILF's estimated 11,000 foot soldiers. The deal notably falls short of the MILF's central demand at the time of its founding, which called for the creation of an independent Muslim state for Mindanao's ethnic Moro Muslims. The MILF broke away from the MNLF in the 1970s when the MNLF dropped the demand for an independent state and accepted a semi-autonomous region.

Through a 1989 plebiscite, the autonomous area became known as the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), which now comprises areas of Maguindanao and Lanao del Sur provinces on mainland Mindanao and Sulu and Tawi Tawi in the Sulu Archipelago. Bangsamoro, the political entity that will replace the ARMM under the framework agreement, will comprise roughly the same territory as the current ARMM and will have a population of about four million people in six municipalities in Lanao del Norte, six municipalities in North Cotabato, and the cities of Cotabato and Isabela in Basilan.

This territorial jurisdiction is much smaller than what was negotiated in 2008, when the government and the MILF planned to sign a so-called Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOAAD). The MOAAD, which was ruled by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional and thus never implemented, would have also included large areas of Palawan and Christian-majority areas of North Cotabato and Zamboanga City in Mindanao.

President Benigno Aquino has promised that the political interests that torpedoed the MOAAD deal will not interfere with the implementation of the framework agreement. For Aquino, the deal promises to solidify his legacy as not only as a reformer but also a peacemaker. The deal is intended to be finalized in 2016, the same year that his six-year term ends. Aquino highlighted the economic benefits that the agreement will bring to Mindanao when he said that "the hands that once held rifles will be put to use tilling land, selling produce, manning work stations and opening doorways of opportunity".

A US intelligence assessment made public in 2011 estimates that Mindanao has an estimated US$1 trillion in untapped mineral deposits but companies have been unable to exploit the resources due to the numerous insurgencies on the restive island. Persian Gulf-based companies from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have expressed interest in agricultural investments in Mindanao but have also shied away due to the political risks.

The framework agreement is acceptable to Manila in part because the Bangsamoro area will not be as large as the one proposed in 2008 and all powers that are typically the exclusive sovereign powers of the state, such as foreign policy and defense, will remain with the government. Bangsamoro will have powers including taxation and the "right to strengthen Islamic Courts," which will be applicable only to Muslims.

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