Letter From Manila: Ending a Long Insurgency in the Philippines

How to Talk to a MILF

Last month, peace talks to bring an end to four decades of Islamist insurgency in the southern Philippines resumed, with both the government and the main secessionist group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), making optimistic pronouncements about this round of talks. But many are less hopeful, noting the negotiations' wearying start-and-stop trend.

Indeed, one of the biggest potential breakthroughs to a final peace accord collapsed in August 2008, when the Philippine government suddenly scrapped plans to sign a draft agreement that would have expanded an autonomous Muslim region on Mindanao island, the largest in the southern Philippines. Working groups from both the government and the MILF had initialed the pact, called the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain, but just before the formal signing, politicians in Christian-dominated provinces on Mindanao successfully petitioned the Supreme Court of the Philippines in protest. The fallout from the collapse of the MOA-AD was devastating. MILF units in Mindanao retaliated by attacking Christian towns and villages in Lanao del Norte, a province bordering the Muslim areas of the south. In response, the Philippine military launched a strong offensive against these units. More than 700,000 civilians were displaced in fighting that lasted several months. 

The situation is still tense. Just days before the talks resumed in Kuala Lumpur on December 8, 2009, Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo imposed a brief period of martial law in Maguindanao, one of the Muslim provinces on Mindanao, after 57 civilians, including 30 journalists, were massacred there. The killings were rooted in a rivalry between two Muslim clans, not in the Muslim insurgency. But they exposed just how fragile security remains in this volatile corner of the Philippines and reminded officials of the urgency of getting the peace process with the MILF back on track.

Although the MOA-AD is defunct, the territorial issues it dealt with will need to be resolved in the current round of talks. Muslims make up only 20 percent of Mindanao's population of 22 million, but they continue to view the region as their ancestral domain. In fact, the government resettled large numbers of Christians to Mindanao from the more densely populated northern and central islands during the first half of the twentieth century. Some Muslims still refer to the Christian population as "settlers."

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