x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

No easy path to peace in the Philippines

The future of the Philippines' strife-torn southern region of Mindanao is taking shape, one accountancy class at a time.

Filipino Mujahideen fighters of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front celebrate after the signing of a framework agreement between the Philippines government and Muslim separatist rebels.
Filipino Mujahideen fighters of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front celebrate after the signing of a framework agreement between the Philippines government and Muslim separatist rebels.

SULTAN KUDARAT, PHILIPPINES // At a nondescript two-storey building in the town of Sultan Kudarat, the future of the Philippines' strife-torn southern region of Mindanao is taking shape, one accountancy class at a time.

Dozens of former fighters in Mindanao's decades-old Islamist insurgency are learning new skills - from book-keeping to computer literacy and law - that are crucial to the long-term success of a landmark peace deal signed in Manila on Monday.

"Every student comes out of this institute as a new person," said Zamin Unti, 55, a former Moro Islamic Liberation Front (Milf) rebel who teaches three-day crash courses at the Bangsamoro Leadership and Management Institute.

Turning fighters into laptop-wielding administrators of the new autonomous Bangsamoro region is one of the challenges facing Mindanao as it moves beyond euphoria over the deal.

The transition to a new autonomous government is likely to be threatened by "spoilers" such as reluctant politicians in Manila to breakaway groups of rebels.

Both sides must also overcome decades of mistrust that have built up in the region between Muslims and minority Christians and the likely unwillingness of rebels to give up their weapons while peace remains fragile.

"We are not ready yet to surrender our guns because there are too many weapons out there in the hands of even ordinary farmers," Commander Abdul, a 50-year-old guerrilla, said at a checkpoint leading to a rebel base.

While a "transition commission" has until 2015 to present a final law to congress, the two sides only have until December to iron out details such as the new administration's fiscal and legal powers and the decommissioning of the Milf's weapons.

Much rests on the president Benigno Aquino's ability to control Congress, where his allies now dominate both houses, but mid-term elections in May could upset the favourable political balance.

Posters and placards supporting the peace deal have sprouted all over Cotabato City, the region's economic hub where nearly half of the residents are non-Muslims, including ethnic Chinese Filipinos. Even sceptics here say they want to give the Milf a chance.

"Maybe in the beginning we will not have any trouble with them, but some could become unreasonable later," a canteen operator who only gave his name as Ernesto said, saying he had heard rumours of Muslims trying to take back farmland they claim belonged to their ancestors.

"Some of my ethnic Chinese-Filipino friends have actually left town."

The current Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (Armm), with a population of about 4 million, is a glaring example of how the region's hopes for peace have been dashed in the past.

Put in place in 1989, the autonomous government never lived up to its promise. Graft flourished, development stagnated and its leaders complained of a lack of resources and political backing from Manila as the Milf kept up its separatist fight.

"We have learnt enough lessons from the old Armm government," said Ghadzali Jaafar, Milf's vice chairman for political affairs. "We are determined to change that by putting in leaders who are dedicated to serve the people and accountable to Allah."

A potential security risk comes from a 500-strong rogue rebel faction that opposed the deal and said it would continue fighting for a separate Islamic state. Its guerrillas attacked army positions in August, taking over an important motorway to Cotabato City.

Mr Jaafar said that Milf was not worried about the group - the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Movement- and might persuade them to join the peace process once the agreement was implemented.

Mindanao has no lack of economic potential. Besides farmland, its mineral reserves account for about two-fifths of total reserves in the Philippines, and includes gold, copper, nickel, iron, chromite and manganese.

Gregory Domingo, the trade secretary, has identified several industries for Mindanao - such as information-technology, outsourcing, utilities, mining and agriculture.

The Bangsamoro Leadership and Management Institute, set up in 2006, provides a reason for hope, teaching rebels skills to become civil servants or run small businesses.

But it also shows the scale of the task ahead. Until March, it was housed in a rented building in Cotabato City before Japanese aid money financed its new centre in Sultan Kudarat, not far from the Milf's main base. The centre has broadband internet, computers and projectors but only has a single training room and remains reliant on foreign funding.

"We're here not only to teach but brainwash them to change their old mindset," said Mr Unti, the rebel-turned-lecturer.