Inside Story

A standoff in the Philippines?

As security forces battle Muslim fighters, we examine the role played by the various groups pursuing different agendas.

Last Modified: 12 Sep 2013 12:05
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In southern Philippines, a standoff continues as security forces battle Muslims fighters from the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), a separatist rebel group seeking an independent state.

The MNLF is against a proposed government peace deal with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), a rival rebel faction. The MNLF argues any new peace agreement would violate the terms of its own peace deal from 1996.

... the story that they are there for a peaceful march it's of course belied by the fact that they were so fully armed, but also because so many of its top commanders are part of this movement that it seems unlikely that they were just going to try to give peaceful demonstrations … but beyond that [ it] is hard to understand what they are trying to accomplish.

Steven Rood, the Asia Foundation's representative for the Philippines and Pacific Island nations

The MNLF fighters poured into six coastal communities of Zamboanga on Mindanao Island, on Monday. It is a port city of nearly a million people. It is also the main commercial, educational and government centre of the south and crucially a largely Muslim region in a predominantly Catholic country.

In recent days, an army spokesman said the fighters had planned to march in and hoist their flag above the City Hall, but government forces surrounded the rebels, and gun battles have been taking place ever since resulting in casualties on both sides.
More than 10,000 people have crammed into the city's sports stadium, seeking safety from the fighting.

But there are different rebel groups involved in the conflicts in the Philippines.

The MNLF sees its campaign as a nationalist struggle, and has been fighting since the late 1960s for the independence of what it calls Bangasmoro Land which includes Mindanao, and other islands in the Sulu Archipelago.

There are also groups that have split from the MNLF and ones which stress the element of religion in their separatist message - the MILF is one such group and they have fought a violent campaign in Basilan.

Abu Sayyaf is another armed group and an off-shoot of the MILF - it is actually on the US list of 'Designated Foreign Terrorist Organisations', as is the New People's Army, the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines, whose insurgency has involved kidnapping and extortion.

The MNLF, the group involved in the current standoff, reached a peace agreement with the government in 1996, but the MILF, the country's largest rebel group, continued with its campaign for a separate Islamic state in the south.

In 2001, it too declared a ceasefire saying it was ready to hold talks with the Arroyo government, but a rebel attack took place in Mindanao killing 30 people and ending any chance of peace talks.

After months of wrangling, another ceasefire was signed in July 2003 with the MILF, but the fighting continued and by 2005, that ceasefire had become history too.

And just three years later, in 2008, they tried a government deal with the MILF rebels on the expansion of an autonomous Muslim region in the south, but objections from Christian communities caused that deal to collapse. And the renewed fighting led to another 30 people being killed.

And last year, the government signed a framework for a peace plan with the group hoping to end the 40-year long conflict.

The previous agreement was done with the MILF but Nur Misuari, the leader of the MNLF said his faction was marginalised in the peace agreement, and that sparked this latest standoff.

So, with different groups and different agendas, is peace possible in the Philippines? And what do these conflicts mean for the country?

To discuss this, Inside Story with presenter Kamahl Santamaria, is joined by guests: Zainudin Malang, executive director of the Mindanao Human Rights Action Center; and Steven Rood, the Asia Foundation's representative for the Philippines and Pacific Island nations.

"Our main concern right now is to protect the civilians … there are 14,000 civilians that are being displaced … the entire city, a city of almost 1,000,000 [habitants] is practically shut down at the moment,  people's lives are being disrupted dramatically,  the question now  is how do we bring  … the situation [to a point] where people can go back to their normal lives …

"It's going to take a lot of trust between the two parties ... which is made more difficult,  by the fact that for the past three days there has been a heavy exchange of gunfire [from] both sides … resulting in casualties on both sides ..."

- Zainudin Malang, executive director of the Mindanao Human Rights Action Center


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