Tuesday, November 10, 2009

U.S. Digs Deeper into Mindanao's Mire

MANILA - A war of words between the Philippine government and a separatist Muslim rebel group over the kidnapping of an Irish missionary threatens to derail the lobbying efforts of the United States to bring the two sides back to peace negotiations.

The renewed animosity has flared up ahead of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's scheduled arrival in Manila on Thursday for a two-day visit to press Manila and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) to resume their stalled peace talks. Clinton, who will later proceed to Singapore for an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting, is expected to reiterate Washington's long-standing offer to help push the talks to restore peace and normalcy in the southern Philippine island of Mindanao.

Malaysia had previously brokered the talks, but it seems no longer keen to host further meetings after it last year pulled out its contingent of "peace monitors" from Mindanao. Backed by the Organization of Islamic Conference, Malaysia expressed frustration over the continued hostilities between security forces and the MILF which led to the collapse of the ceasefire agreement.

The possibility of resuming negotiations also appears dim after Manila accused the MILF of involvement in the October 11 abduction of an Irish priest, Michael Sinnot. The 79-year-old Sinnot was seized by armed men in Pagadian city, 1,000 kilometers south of Manila, and reportedly brought to MILF-controlled areas in the predominantly Muslim province of Lanao del Sur.

Interior and Local Government Secretary Ronaldo Puno said the MILF was responsible for the Catholic priest's abduction and that the government would not entertain the kidnappers' demand for a US$12 million ransom in exchange for the prelate's freedom.
But the MILF, which boasts 12,000 fighters, strongly denied the government's charge, branding it as "cheap propaganda" and "an affront to the peace process".

As tensions mounted anew in Mindanao, hundreds of residents in some Maguindanao towns reportedly fled after the MILF began massing its heavily armed forces following rumors that the military was poised to launch rescue operations. Despite the row over Sinnot's kidnapping, senior US Embassy officials in Manila have held clandestine meetings with MILF leaders in their Maguindanao camp. The US Embassy has kept mum on the meetings, but on its website, the MILF confirmed in a statement that it had held talks with a visiting group of American diplomats led by the US Embassy charge d'affaires, Leslie Basset, on October 16.

The US is a major aid donor, including for various development projects, making it a key stakeholder in Mindanao's peace process. It has provided funds and built roads, bridges, school buildings and other infrastructure projects, particularly in impoverished Muslim-populated areas in Mindanao.

As part of the Visiting Forces Agreement, the US has also extended training and intelligence support to Filipino troops in their counter-terrorism operations. MILF vice chairman Ghazali Jaafar told the visiting US diplomats that the MILF welcomed Washington's offer to push the peace process.

On President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo's request, Malaysia has been facilitating the talks since 2001 to help put an end to the Muslim insurgency in Mindanao that has claimed 120,000 lives and displaced more than two million people. The current US ambassador, Kristie Kenney, who also previously visited MILF leaders in their camp for talks, said the US was leaving it to Manila and the MILF to decide what role the US would play in the talks.

Despite the MILF's well-documented acts of terrorism violence, the US has surprisingly excluded the secessionist group from its global list of terrorist organizations. The Islamic extremists Abu Sayyaf and communist-led New People's Army are currently the only Philippine groups on Washington's list.

By Al Labita who has worked as a journalist for over 30 years, including as a regional bureau chief and foreign editor for the Philippine News Agency. He has worked as a Manila correspondent for several major local publications and wire agencies in Australia, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore and the United Kingdom.

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