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Muslims guerrillas warn of new Philippines conflict - The Guardian, London

Adam Easton ()
2 September 1997

Title: Muslims guerrillas warn of new Philippines conflict
Author: Adam Easton
Publication: The Guardian, London
Date: September 2, 1997

A year after a peace deal ended 25 years of fighting between Muslim rebels
and government forces, the spectre of war still haunts Mindanao, the
second-largest island in the Philippines.

In the southern jungle 500 miles south of Manila a growing army of
discontented guerrillas threatens to derail the fragile agreement, despite
billions of dollars flooding into the mineral-rich island from foreign
investors.

The second-largest Muslim group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF),
which did not sign the agreement, claims the peace is a sham that has done
nothing to alleviate the poverty of its communities. It is threatening to
reignite a conflict that has claimed tens of thousands.

The accord between the government and the largest Muslim group, the Moro
National Liberation Front (MNLF), on September 2 last year set up a special
economic zone for the four provinces that already enjoy autonomy. This
region may be expanded to cover the 14 mainly Muslim provinces in a 1999
plebiscite. In addition, up to 7,500 MNLF soldiers are to be integrated
into the Philippine military and police force.

At the signing, President Fidel Ramos proclaimed ,a new era of peace and
development" and was feted worldwide for ending the bloodshed.

Since the agreement, Nur Misuari, governor of the region and chairman of
the MNLF, has secured multi-million dollar pledges of investment from
foreign companies. The region's gross domestic product, which has averaged
4 per cent since 1993, is expected to rise through projects such as an
island-wide railway.

At present, however, half the population live below the poverty line and
the average number of years of schooling is six. The MILF says it supports
development but claims ordinary Muslims have not reaped the benefits from
the economic programme.

The group's main stronghold, Camp Abubakre, lies about 25 miles north of
Cotabato City. Young soldiers armed with rocket launchers guard the border
gate. Inside, guerrillas as young as 12 practise their drill dressed in
battered tennis shoes and khakis.

Surrounded by M16-wielding bodyguards, chief of staff and vice-chairman A1
Haj Murad stands below a sign warning: "If you want peace, be prepared for
war."

The MILF was formed as an MNLF splinter group in 1982 and claims to have
120,000 armed regulars and militias in every community. It says 6,000 MNLF
fighters, disgruntled with the peace deal, have defected to its side.

Mr Murad claims Muslim rights have not been respected and that thousands
were displaced from their homeland by Christian settlers encouraged to
relocate to the "Land of Promise" in the late 1950s.

"We cannot accept the MNLF agreement because it does not address the root
causes of our problems," he says. "We are still the poorest people."

Despite signing a cease-fire in July, Mr Murad is pessimistic about an
agreement with the "insincere" administration, adding: "If it is necessary
to wage armed struggle again, then we are ready for it." His group is
supplied by Islamic arms dealers worldwide and also has a modest armaments
factory.

Mr Murad has pledged to protect the Christian life-style under a future
Islamic autonomous state, as long as practices such as gambling and
drinking are conducted in private. This reassurance sits uneasily with many
Christian groups, which also feel "cheated" by the peace agreement.

Father Colin Bagaforo, priest in the nearby town of Sultan Kuderat, says
there are at least 4,000 armed Christian vigilantes around the island. "My
main fear is war - and It will be a more bloody one than the previous war,"
he adds. "We wanted to have peace, of course, but we were not consulted.
The Muslim community has been oppressed, but we are the majority now.
History cannot be reversed."

Governor Misuari is touring Mindanao to drum up support for the plebiscite
and collect signatures to petition the president to release more funds for
the economy.

He is acutely aware the peace rests upon development and that the MNLF has
reserved the right to resume the struggle if it fails. Despite reeling off
an impressive list of potential investments, he admits that most Muslims
have seen no returns.

"It is now one year on, and not a single road or a single house has been
built for us," he says.


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