“We are expecting more people to be displaced, with the government continuing its hot-pursuit operations against the MILF,” Rommel Banlaoi, executive director of the Philippine Institute for Political Violence and Terrorism Research, a think-tank, told IRIN. “I don’t think the MILF will go back to the negotiating table under the current administration.”
He said the “framework” for any future peace talks had been radically reversed by President Gloria Arroyo, who insisted MILF rebels must first disarm and surrender rogue elements to authorities before new talks. The policy shift “is a clear departure” from previous negotiations that have been marked by violations of a ceasefire set in 2003.
“The framework has changed. I think the position of the Philippine government is now very strong. It wants the rebels crushed,” he said.
Arroyo’s policy shift came shortly after two rogue MILF commanders raided towns and villages across Mindanao in August to protest an injunction ordered by the Supreme Court on the implementation of the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain, a document that would have given the rebels control over the political and economic development of some 700 towns and villages, many of which are occupied by Christians.
The attacks left over 100 civilians dead, many businesses ruined and affected 500,000 people at the height of the fighting in August-September, according to the National Disaster Coordinating Council.
While the fighting has largely abated, running gun battles across several Mindanao towns and provinces continue, and nearly 100,000 people are still in IDP camps. The cost of the war has also been straining military finances.
The Supreme Court on 14 October issued a final ruling killing the agreement. In response, the MILF said it would not recognise the ruling, and warned that while it would not order an all-out assault, it would not stand in the way of frustrated commanders who chose to attack army positions.
“We don’t know if the new government succeeding Arroyo will take a second look at the agreement, but one thing is clear, we don’t see the peace talks with the current administration prospering. And as we count the number of days [before the elections in May 2010], the displacements will continue,” Banlaoi said.
The Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG), which analyses conflicts worldwide, said in a policy briefing on 23 October that the government’s immediate task should be to “prevent escalation” of hostilities and discourage civilians and local governments in Mindanao from arming civilians who fear more MILF attacks.
It said the likelihood of a “full-scale war” spreading throughout Mindanao was unlikely, with neither side having the resources “to engage in sustained combat”. The military said it had already spent over US$12.5 million on fuel and ammunition since operations began in August, not counting the compensation for slain and wounded troops.
But the ICG said Indonesian militants known to operate in some areas controlled by the MILF could “decide to undertake retaliatory action. A major urban bombing could in turn trigger a much wider conflict,” the ICG said. It did not specify what group the Indonesians belonged to, but military intelligence officials told IRIN that dozens of Indonesian militants from Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) were in Mindanao. JI is the acknowledged Southeast Asian arm of the al-Qaeda, and is blamed for the 2002 bomb attacks in Bali that killed 200.
“Looking ahead, if and when the peace talks resume, the government will have to do a better job of heading off potential spoilers, through consultation or co-optation, and delivering what it promises,” the ICG said, stressing that the break in talks was based on “deep suspicions about the substance” of the proposed deal. “It will be very difficult to go back to this agreement as the starting point for the next round. The MILF says the agreement is a done deal and it will not countenance any renegotiation.”
The general feeling, the ICG said, is that “no movement is possible until after a new president is in place”.
In addition, rights group Amnesty International issued a report on 29 October stating that human rights violations had become rampant in Mindanao, and the situation in many evacuation centers it had visited were deteriorating. It said that in one area, medical care was inadequate even though there were some nurses and midwives. “There are reports of some children dying of diarrhoea in some centres,” it said, adding that it had received reports that military bombardments of suspected MILF areas had led to civilian deaths.
“Amnesty International calls on the government to investigate reports of food blockades, or aid being restricted by local government officials, and ensure that local political disagreements do not hinder aid from reaching the displaced people,” it said