Friday, December 10, 2010

Political will needed for peace with Philippines Moros

TENSIONS between Moro rebels and the Philippine military and officially-sanctioned private militia groups in Mindanao's North Cotabato province have this week reportedly boiled over again, disrupting the already miserable lives of long displaced people.

Again, the Philippine government, in the absence of progress on a promised resumption of stalled peace talks, is rather desperately requesting international peace monitors in the region to again extend their mission, which officially ends this week, for a further three months.

The recent first anniversary of the now infamous Maguindanao massacre of 58 highlights how little, if anything, has changed in the Philippines even with a popular change in government.

There were the de rigueur candle-lit memorials and condemnations repeated by politicians. But the trials of some of the alleged perpetrators lumber on in the courts, with over a hundred more guilty ones reportedly still at large.
And now, President Benigno Aquino III has to make the familiar back-pedalling from an election promise: the dismantling of private militias that are a law unto themselves in the remote outer islands of the archipelago.

The militias, the president hinted, are a necessary evil to help his government and its stretched military ward off insurgencies of the communist and Muslim kind.

And what, one must ask, has the new president done to bring those insurgencies to heel so the armed militias may be disbanded once and for all? Peace negotiations, which the president promised will be urgently resumed once his government got on its feet, are nowhere near being reconvened.

Preparatory work had promisingly gone apace for a resumption of the peace talks with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), with both protagonists agreeing (the Aquino administration rather reluctantly, it has to be said) to keep Malaysia on as third-party mediator.

Talks were supposed to begin soon after Hari Raya Aidilfitri. But even the Aidiladha festivities have come and gone and the Philippines is now deep into the Christmas festivities. The talks will obviously have to wait.

It appears -- inevitably perhaps -- that the talks have now become hostage to Manila's typically treacherous political undercurrents. Making peace with Muslim rebels in overwhelmingly Catholic Philippines has never been a popular political proposition to begin with.

Now it seems the powerful Roxas faction aligned to Aquino's failed running-mate has been captured by Mindanao politicians (most prominently in North Cotabato) into resisting peace with the MILF.

Charges are flying anew insinuating against the personal impartiality of Datuk Othman Abd Razak, the chief Malaysian mediator, after he made a public call for political will in Manila if a peace deal is to be sealed.

Othman is, of course, only stating the obvious. The aborted Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain agreed to by the MILF with the previous Arroyo administration was derailed by a court restraining order at the eleventh hour.

Political will is needed in spades to address whatever concerns raised by the courts so that an agreement already initialled by both parties and clearly endorsed by the international community can finally take effect. The newly appointed chief Philippine negotiator had already conceded that constitutional amendments may ultimately be necessary.

In fact, renewed negotiations are already redundant. That the MILF agreed to them after initially suggesting it failed to see what the point was in more talks should prove its sincerity in wanting to walk the extra mile for peace.

A side note about partiality, although not that there is any suggestion of that in Othman, is in order. The United States is accepted as a vital and even indispensable mediator in Middle East peace talks.

This is despite Arab anger with the US for the strong US-Israeli alliance. The elusive search for Middle East peace simply stands no chance without the US, however much disliked by Arabs.

Aquino has obviously explored other options such as the one he publicly aired about roping in Indonesia before presumably concluding there really is no other option but Malaysia as mediator if he wanted the peace process to go on.

Lucky for him, Malaysia did not take offence for such a very public presidential indiscretion.

Amateur hour is fast drawing to a close. The window for peace cannot conceivably stay open forever.

Aquino has this chance to put his illustrious family name down as Philippine peacemaker, a legacy that eluded his mother. It should be a worthy encore to his mother's legacy as restorer of Philippine democracy and his father's as a martyr for it.

The Philippines' huge and manifold problems are probably endemic. Short of revolution, these problems can perhaps only be managed and ameliorated, at best.

Its most invaluable asset today is a new president who remains hugely popular despite some initial setbacks. Aquino must quickly resolve to put his strong suit -- inspirational and statesman-like leadership -- to use in the pursuit of justice and peace, without which his country's real potential will forever be not fully realised. New Straits Times Kuala Lumpur

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