- The Washington Times - Friday, July 6, 2001

MINDANAO, Philippines — From the thatched-roof shack that has served as his office for the past six months, Lt. Col. Roger Salvador has a clear view of the lush, jungle-clad mountains of Mindanao that are home to the guerrillas of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
The MILF — far more powerful than the high-profile, renegade Abu Sayyaf guerrillas holding hostages on Basilan, just to the south of Mindanao — signed a truce June 22 in Libya with the government of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo after an armed insurgency that cost an estimated 120,000 lives over the past three decades.
[According to the Macapagal-Arroyo government, the accord signed two weeks ago in Tripoli recommits both sides to implementing the Agreement on the General Cessation of Hostilities the two parties signed on July 18, l997, which had been virtually nullified by fighting.
[The agreement calls for the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) to name a committee that will include Libya, Malaysia and Indonesia, to monitor implementation of all agreements between the government and the MILF, including the cease-fire itself.
[Subsequent meetings of negotiators for the Philippines government and the MILF are to be held in Malaysia and Indonesia, said Jesus Dureza, head of the government peace panel, cited in a report from Tripoli by the Xinhua news agency of China. Other venues are being considered in line with Mrs. Arroyo's "shifting venue," Xinhua said.
[Xinhua quoted MILF spokesman Eid Kabalu as saying the accord would "strengthen the peace process" and lead to the "introduction of economic development in Mindanao."]
In 1996, the Philippines government signed a peace accord with the separatist Moro National Liberation Front; both the MILF and the Abu Sayyaf are considered splinter groups of the MNLF.
Last year, Col. Salvador's 64th Infantry Battalion was part of the government offensive that forced the MILF to abandon its stronghold of Camp Abu Bakar, a sprawling area of countryside in the southern Philippines. MILF leaders, including the group's chief, Hashim Salamat, had to flee. But the guerrillas themselves simply melted away into the forest.
Last year's all-out offensive, put in motion by President Joseph Estrada, was hugely popular among the Christian-settler population in Mindanao, who today far outnumber the island's indigenous Muslims. The Rev. Eliseo Mercado, a Mindanao-based Jesuit priest and academic closely involved in the peace process, says the Estrada policy fanned the flames of sectarian discord.
"The all-out war really destroyed the bridges of trust and confidence between Muslims and Christians," he said. "People have become polarized again according to their beliefs."
Back in Camp Abu Bakar, the army is now trying to undo the damage and win back the confidence of a civilian population. Troops are helping build new stilt houses, complete with corrugated-iron roofs, for some of the thousands of people who saw their villages obliterated in the army bombardment.
Only a few of the fragile little structures have been occupied so far. Bunga Buliok returned with her husband and five children in April after spending more than a year in evacuation centers. Her new house stands just yards from the burned ruins of the one the family formerly occupied.
"It's very hard," she said. "We can harvest our coconuts, but we can't work our rice paddy because our buffalo have disappeared."
Elsewhere, army bulldozers are busily leveling the muddy, rutted tracks that meander through Camp Abu Bakar. A mosque devastated by the assault on a nearby rebel position has been painstakingly rebuilt.
Such gestures are meant to win over Muslim hearts and minds, and convey the message that Manila represents more than a conquering army. But it may be too little, too late. Centuries of oppression and neglect have left Muslim parts of Mindanao the most impoverished and destitute areas of the country. Christian farmers have gobbled up huge swaths of agricultural land previously owned by Muslims. Illiteracy and unemployment are rife.
Like her predecessors as president, Mrs. Macapagal-Arroyo has promised to bring greater economic development. But lawyer Lanang Ali, one of the MILF's senior negotiators in the talks, says the problem has gone beyond mere economics.
"The only solution here is a negotiated political settlement of this problem," he said. "The [Muslim] people here in Mindanao should be asked in a referendum which government they want to establish for themselves …"
The MILF position is complicated by a division within its ranks. Some hard-liners remain committed to the group's long-standing objective: a separate Islamic state covering parts of Mindanao and other smaller islands where Muslims are in a majority. Other leaders seem to concede that such an ambition is unrealistic, and that greater autonomy — including the introduction of sharia, Islamic religious law — would be an acceptable compromise.
Father Mercado believes this centrist stance, which is on the rise, fuels hopes for progress in Tripoli. "The independent Islamic state is an easy slogan. And I believe there are 1,001 ways to respond to this aspiration," he said.
Gunter Hecker, country director for the Asian Development Bank, sees for the first time a real chance of a breakthrough in a conflict that has bedeviled the Philippines since the Spanish conquered Mindanao 400 years ago.
"Everybody knows war is not the solution. This government senses that there is a chance for peace. So far, it seems good progress is being made."

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