(CNSNews.com) – A controversial peace deal with Islamic separatists in the southern Philippines is in jeopardy after hundreds of radicals killed more than 30 people in attacks on several Christian-majority towns, shooting and hacking their victims to death.
The Philippine military said Wednesday it was taking “aggressive action” against members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) responsible for the bloodshed.
Armed Forces chief Gen. Alexander Yano was dismissive of claims by the MILF leadership that the atrocities had been carried out by rebel commanders who were not acting under the group's orders.
“If they cannot control [their men] then the government will certainly control them and we will undertake our mandate to protect the people and the communities,” he said in a television interview.
Officials said the MILF fighters on Monday went on a shooting, hostage-taking and house-torching spree through several towns in two provinces of Mindanao, the large island in the south of the predominantly Catholic Philippines. Among the dead was a senior army officer.
Muslims (“Moros”) in the south have been fighting for four decades for independence, and more than 100,000 lives have been lost.
In the early 1990s, a partially self-governing entity known as the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) was established, comprising a handful of provinces in Mindanao.
The government subsequently reached a peace agreement with a longstanding separatist group, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) but the MILF, an 11,000-strong offshoot, continued its armed campaign.
Years of negotiations with the MILF looked set late last month to lead to an agreement to enlarge the ARMM by incorporating neighboring provinces, and also to further expand its political and economic powers.
But the plan ran into protests by local government officials whose areas were slated to join the ARMM, Christians concerned about fresh interreligious violence, and lawmakers worried about the impact on national sovereignty.
Last-minute court action temporarily stopped the deal on August 4, shortly before the government and MILF were due to hold a formal signing ceremony. Security rapidly deteriorated.
Despite a ceasefire, hundreds of MILF fighters seized control of a number of mainly Christian villages in a neighboring province the group wants incorporated into the ARMM, razing dozens of homes and displacing tens of thousands of residents.
The military then issued a deadline for the rebels to withdraw from the villages and when it passed, mounted an offensive to expel them. That fighting reportedly left more than two dozen MILF members and soldiers dead.
After an uneasy calm and as displaced villagers made their way home, more violence erupted when MILF fighters ambushed soldiers and on Monday launched attacks in two other Mindanao provinces.
Top MILF officials have painted the violence as the work of uncontrollable commanders frustrated by the delays in the territorial deal.
“Some of our commanders are frustrated over the deliberate, orchestrated delay of the peace talks by the government,” a senior leader, Khaled Musa, said in a statement cited on a MILF Web site on Wednesday. “They did these things without clearance from us.”
Government officials, however, appear skeptical.
President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s press secretary, J.G. Dureza, in a radio interview surmised that the MILF may be trying to use by attacks by ostensible renegades as a “pressure tactic” to force the government to sign the pending agreement.
He said the government was now reviewing whether it could go ahead with the agreement at all, given the likelihood that some MILF members would refuse to abide by it even if it was signed.
Islamic bloc silent
Regional security experts view the future stability of Mindanao as a matter of importance, in part, because of militants’ hopes to establish a regional Islamic super state encompassing the southern Philippines as well as Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and parts of Thailand.
Jemaah Islamiah (JI), a terrorist network experts call the regional “proxy” or “affiliate” of al-Qaeda, has such a super state as its long-term goal.
An editorial in the Manila Times last week voiced concern about what it called a process of “Islamization,” not just in the ARMM but also spreading to other parts of the country.
While a banner atop the MILF Web site cites a “struggle for the right of self-determination and freedom,” jihadist rhetoric and terminology are also present.
A MILF fighter who goes by the name of Commander Bravo told a Mindanao radio station Wednesday that his “mujahideen” had carried out Monday’s attacks because they were angry over the aborted land agreement.
Declaring an “all-out war” against the government, he said “we are prepared to kill, we are prepared to be killed.”
“What the Muslims want is Islamic justice in Mindanao,” Bravo said. “In the eyes of Allah we are not terrorists.”
The country’s Commission on Human Rights (CHR), an independent statutory body, on Tuesday slammed the MILF.
“It is a terrorist act when you sow fear in communities and the MILF’s attacks are actually sowing fear in many villages and nearby cities,” CHR head Leila de Lima told a press conference.
She said the MILF leadership should go beyond distancing itself from the violence, and hand over the commanders it says are responsible for the atrocities.
De Lima said the CHR was considering filing a report on the atrocities committed by the MILF with “appropriate international bodies,” which could include the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC).
Although the OIC – the Saudi-based bloc of the world’s 56 Islamic nations – has played an important role in the negotiation process with the MILF and has monitored previous agreements, it has not spoken out over the violence in Mindanao.
Prof. Patricio Abinales of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at Kyoto University in Japan said Wednesday the OIC would “probably not dip its fingers into what is happening now in Muslim Mindanao.”
Abinales, a Filipino from Mindanao, noted that the OIC still views the older MNLF as the main representative of Muslims in the southern Philippines, and has a “lukewarm relationship” with the MILF.
He also said OIC member states Malaysia and Indonesia had been more active in Mindanao than the OIC itself.
“So my sense is that the OIC will leave the Philippine government and the MILF to figure out the problem,” with Malaysia and the U.S. gently encouraging a return to negotiations, Abinales added.
By contrast to the OIC’s silence on the Philippines situation, it did issue a statement on August 13 deploring violence in the Indian-controlled portion of disputed Kashmir, where more than 20 Muslims have been killed during clashes between separatists and security forces.
OIC Secretary-General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu urged the Indian government to end the violence and said the U.N. Human Rights Council should address the situation.
New Delhi reacted angrily to the statement, saying the OIC had no legal standing to intervene in India’s internal affairs.