CAMP DARAPANAN, MAGUINDANAO // In a clearing just outside the southern Philippine town of Sultan Kudarat, the leader of the country's biggest Muslim group contemplates an uncertain future. After 40 years of conflict, Al Haj Murad Ebrahim hopes the new Philippine government of President Benigno Aquino will finally do what past presidents have failed to do - bring peace to this south-eastern corner of the Philippine archipelago by allowing the establishment of a Muslim homeland.
But Mr Murad, leader of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), is unsure whether Mr Aquino and his government are interested in talking. Some commanders having already broken away from the MILF central command, and the government is considering starting negotiations from scratch. "At the moment we are getting mixed signals from Manila," Mr Murad told a group of foreign correspondents at the MILF's headquarters at Camp Darapanan in the southern Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao. It is a neat, well-run compound surrounded by lush green rice paddies, corn fields and banana plantations.
"We already have a comprehensive compact with the last government that will bring peace to Mindanao. Now we are told the government wants to start from scratch," he said. After negotiating with successive Philippine governments for 13 years, he said that the country's new president, Mr Aquino, has six years to solve the problem if he is serious. Mr Murad said his group wants a homeland, "not some sort of bogus autonomy."
"We can't start the process all over again," Mr Murad said. "We have signed 87 agreements and documents with the Philippine government, and we also initialed a landmark Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD) with both sides committed to move forward with a comprehensive compact that will bring about a lasting political settlement". Ethnic Moros are the largest non-Christian group in the Philippines, making up between five and 10 per cent of the country's 100 million people. An agreement signed in August 2008 called for the establishment of a Moro state, but the Supreme Court quashed the agreement. Critics claimed the agreement would lead to the breakup of the Philippines.
Within days of the ruling, a number of commanders broke away from the central MILF leadership, burning towns and villages in northern and Central Mindanao. The violence led to the displacement of about 750,000 people. An estimated 10,000 to 20,000 families are still living with relatives or in displacement centres. Late Monday the government said it was eager to start talks that will lead to a "just, comprehensive and durable peace in Mindanao". Those talks are expected resume at the end of Ramadan.
"Definitely, it is not the intention of the government's panel to start from scratch, but we don't want to start without a viable proposal," Marvic Leonen, the head of the government's negotiating team, said in a statement. "Our hope, however, is that the MILF understands that the fresh mandate given to the present administration which was very critical to the past one compels us to do our proper due diligence of all the statements, agreements and negotiating parameters," Mr Leonen said.
Peace talks between the MILF and the government began in 1997 after years of bitter fighting. Although not designated a terrorist organisation by the United States, some factions within the MILF have associations with the Jemaah Islamiyah and bandits who hide under the umbrella of the Abu Sayyaf. The Abu Sayyaf (Father of the Sword) was founded in 1990 by Abdurazzak Abubakar Janjalani who was educated in Saudi Arabia. His group had close links with other extremist groups in Southeast Asia wanting to create a pan-Islamic state. The group had close links with the Indonesian Jemaah Islamiyah.
After Janjalani's death in 1998 in a firefight with the Philippine military, the group split into at least 14 factions. Together the factions have been responsible for the worst terrorist attacks in the Philippines, including the 2004 sinking of a passenger ferry in Manila Bay with the loss of more than 100 people. It has been involved in kidnappings of foreign priests and International Red Cross workers and tourists.
Although the Jemaah Islamiyah is reported to have been neutralised by the Indonesian authorities, it is starting to regroup. It was responsible for the Bali bombings in 2002 in which more than 200 people were killed, attacks on the Australian embassy and Marriott hotel in Jakarta. Mr Murad is well aware of the burden of history that he carries. In 1996 the government negotiated a peace agreement with the Moro National Liberation Front, the country's first Muslim revolutionary group, which saw the establishment of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao. But it did not bring a lasting peace.
Many young Muslims became disenchanted and broke off to form the MILF, which was sidelined during the 1996 talks that led to the establishment of autonomous region in Mindanao. Looking back, Mr Murad said Muslims "have been fighting for a homeland now for 40 years - a generation". He warned that their resolve would not diminish. "The next generations of leaders were born during the struggle and have only known violence and the hardship of war. My concern is that unless a solution is found now, the next generation will be more militant and more radical. You can feel it among the youth," he said.
Mr Murad denied that there were any serious divisions within MILF but did acknowledge some breakaway factions. "But we are dealing with the problem," he said. While the military estimates the MILF has some 12,000 armed troops, Murad said the figure was a "gross underestimate." "In fact we have 60,000 armed men and can mobilise 120,000 at short notice." He said the MILF had 42 active camps in Mindanao.
"I would estimate our support overall at about one million people," he said. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org