- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 30, 2008

SINGAPORE | The southern Philippines, long considered a safe haven for al Qaeda affiliates, has relapsed into violence after a U.S.-backed peace deal between the government and a rebel Islamic militant group collapsed.

The renewal of the decades-old conflict has prompted fears that the Muslims of the island of Mindanao, the Bangsamoro or “Moros,” could align with extremists and the area could become a breeding ground for international terror groups.

“The religious and cultural affinities Moros share with the Islamic world could provide new entree for extremist elements willing to use violence in pursuit of their, if not wholly Moro, goals,” said former U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines G. Eugene Martin.

Since August, when the country’s Supreme Court rejected the peace deal as unconstitutional, attacks by rogue members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) - followed by counterattacks by the Philippine army - have displaced nearly half a million people and left dozens dead. Eight Moro insurgents and six soldiers have died in recent weeks.

The Malaysian-brokered peace agreement, called the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain, was signed by the Philippine government and the MILF. It would have given control of about 700 additional towns and villages on Mindanao to the Moros, southern Filipino Muslims who have limited self-government in the country’s southern islands, which lie close to Indonesia and Malaysia.

However, the Philippine Supreme Court saw the agreement as violating the territorial integrity of the Philippines and compounding secession fears. The court, on a vote of 8-7, labeled the agreement a violation of the constitution.

“The furtive process by which the [deal] was designed and crafted runs contrary to and in excess of the legal authority, and amounts to a whimsical, capricious, oppressive, arbitrary and despotic exercise thereof,” the court said in its ruling.

After the announcement, MILF spokesman Mohagher Iqbal lamented the ruling, saying it would “feed those who oppose the peace talks” within the organization.

Jun Muntawil, a member of the Moro negotiating team, told The Washington Times that the court decision “adds to age-old mistrust between the Filipino people and the Bangsamoro people.”

“The neocolonial government is not worth talking to, for it always betrayed its commitment to the peace process,” he said.

Fighting under various acronyms, Moros have confronted the Philippine army in Mindanao since the 1960s, but resistance to non-Moro rule goes back even further.

The United States took control of the Philippines after the 1898 Spanish-American War, but the south was not fully subjugated until World War I. The Philippines was granted independence from the United States in 1946.

The region has taken on new significance for the United States since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.

Among the al Qaeda affiliates to have taken refuge there are the Indonesia-based Jemaah Islamiyah, thought most notably to be responsible for a 2002 car bombing in Bali in which 202 people were killed.

The Abu Sayyaf terror group is also based in the area, in remote islands off the coast of Mindanao. The group has staged a number of ransom-inspired kidnappings, including of some Westerners.

Martin and Gracia Burnham, a missionary couple from Wichita, Kan., and Guillermo Sobero of Corona, Calif., were taken by Abu Sayyaf from a resort island in May 2001. Mr. Sobero was beheaded by the militants, and Martin Burnham was killed during a military rescue in June 2002 in which his wife was wounded.

The group’s declared aim is to establish a pan-Islamic state across Southeast Asia.

The MILF denies Philippine government claims that it has had links with Abu Sayyaf.

Mr. Martin, the former ambassador, who teaches at Johns Hopkins University, said, “U.S. interests would be best served by a just and durable peace agreement with the Moros implemented over a period of time with international monitoring and assistance. Lacking that, the southern Philippines will continue to be politically unstable.”

Some saw the court’s rejection of the peace agreement as an attempt to exploit the weakness of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. She has been the target of three impeachment drives since she ousted corrupt former President Joseph Estrada in 2001.

In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, Mrs. Arroyo offered Washington access to former U.S. facilities at Clark Air Base and Naval Base Subic Bay, which were closed in 1991. The Bush administration, in turn, has funneled hundreds of millions of dollars in military assistance to the Philippine armed forces.

The U.S. Agency for International Development has pumped more than $230 million in development and humanitarian aid into Mindanao since 2002, including a disarmament program for former guerrillas.

The MILF is not hostile to the U.S. presence in Mindanao, Mr. Muntawil said.

“The U.S. could play an effective role in peacemaking if it reconsiders its policy for justice to the Bangsamoro people,” he said.

However, U.S. influence waned after U.S.-Philippine relations were rocked in 2004 when Mrs. Arroyo withdrew Philippine troops from Iraq in exchange for the release of a kidnapped truck driver. Washington reacted angrily, and Mrs. Arroyo responded by increasing defense cooperation with China.

Mr. Martin said he thought the Mindanao peace process was dormant but not dead.

“Renewed violence, instability, increase in terrorist attacks in Philippine cities will eventually require the government to re-engage with the MILF to end the long conflict,” he said.

A spokesperson for the Philippine Embassy in Washington said his “government has not deviated from its commitment of pursuing enduring peace and progress in Mindanao within the framework of Philippine laws and the constitution.”

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