Talking peace in the Philippines

Filipinos put faith in new president to tackle their country's two long-running insurgencies.

    Filipinos are putting their faith in the new president to end the country's conflicts [GETTY]

    Benigno Aquino III, the newly-installed president of the Philippines, won the office by the largest plurality in the nation's history. 

    Perceived as a lacklustre senator for years, the son of the nation's two icons of democracy now has Filipinos believing that he may just be able to work miracles.

    And chief among the list of hoped for accomplishments is bringing an end to two of the world's longest-running insurgencies - a Muslim separatist movement in the south and an armed communist struggle just about everywhere else.

    Trust and transparency

    Unlike his predecessor, the widely unpopular Gloria Arroyo, the awkward and shy Aquino, by simple virtue of his lineage, has the trust of his people. This puts him in a strong position from which to talk peace with rebels from all sides. 

    Two of Aquino's most popular decisions to date have been his appointments to the embattled justice department and the previously unimpressive peace adviser's office.

    As well as sending feelers out to the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the communists, Teresita Deles, the new presidential peace adviser, has also sat down with the media to outline the government's plan for building a lasting peace.

    Such transparency - which contrasts sharply with the previous administration's preference for keeping its cards close to its chest - has made many in the Philippines feel part of the process and opened the door to constructive discussion.

    Aquino is working to push forward with the peace talks by first regaining the trust of the MILF after a decade of peace efforts came to an end in 2008, when the details of a controversial Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain that was about to be signed was leaked.

    It was met with widespread opposition and the parameters of the agreement were eventually deemed unconstitutional - the debacle serving to put peace on hold once again.

    No timeline for peace

    The MILF are giving the government time to reorganise before starting talks [GETTY]

    MILF leaders initially had their doubts about Aquino too, feeling that he was surrounded by too many people who had opposed the scrapped agreement. But since taking office, Aquino has stated his administration's intentions to learn from past mistakes and to lead a government of "inclusion", in which local government, non-government organisations and other concerned groups will be able to participate.

    In a recent interview, Ghazali Jaafar, the MILF vice-chair for political affairs, told Al Jazeera that the group has decided to give Aquino the benefit of the doubt. "Any new administration will have to reorganise and place their people in place," Jaafar said, adding that he hopes talks will begin in a few months.

    While Deles has stressed that her office aims to bring the country's conflicts to an end "as soon as possible", she has said that no deadline will be set for forging peace.

    In a recent statement on its website, the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) made no bones about its displeasure with peace efforts under the Arroyo administration, adding that it "welcomed" the new government's overtures.

    Back to the table

    But this positivity does not mean that peace, on any front, is a done deal.

    Despite a ceasefire with the government, the MILF, which is estimated to be several thousand strong, refuses to lay down its arms while negotiating a peace deal. This has exacerbated problems in the south where many MILF ground commanders have reportedly been using their weapons to ransack villages.

    Meanwhile, the New People's Army (NPA), the fighting force of the CPP, continues its extortion, kidnapping and murder operations and the group is believed to still have some 12,000 weapon wielding members in rural areas.

    Both groups have laid out their conditions for moving forward with peace negotiations: The MILF wants to finalise plans for an expanded autonomous Muslim region and the CPP/NPA has asked for the release of some detainees and an end to what it calls the "enforced disappearances" of their members.

    But there is one thing all sides agree on - they are happy to return to the table to talk peace. And this alone signals progress.

    Show us the money

    Promised socio-economic projects seek to eradicate the root causes of conflict [AFP]

    The Aquino administration has also suggested that it would be willing to accept foreign assistance for development projects in conflict-ridden areas.

    This is in keeping with the president's stated objective of progress for everyone and is based on the theory that the only way to forge real peace is by eradicating those factors which lead people to bear arms.

    Bringing an end to poverty and corruption was an oft-repeated Aquino campaign promise and the people seem to believe him. In one recent survey, Aquino received the highest trust rating of any Filipino leader - 88 per cent.

    But as well as illustrating the high levels of support he enjoys, this should also be seen as a warning of just how far he has to fall should he fail to live up to expectations.

    On July 26, he will deliver his first state of the nation address and Filipinos hope to see him put his money where his mouth is.

    With the new administration clearly moving beyond military solutions to the country's troubles, Filipinos hope the new budget will allocate sufficient funds for the government's promised socio-economic projects.

    If social injustice is combated, even groups like Abu Sayyaf, which has been responsible for the worst attacks against civilians in the country, will lose their grassroots support.

    Aquino's mother took the first decisive steps in forging peace with the original Muslim separatist group, the Moro National Liberation Front. 

    His father was seen as a champion of the left - with many even considering the elder Aquino to be a communist.

    But the clock is now ticking for the son. Will his talk of peace lead to a brighter future for this conflict-weary country or will his hope-filled words lead to little more than broken dreams?

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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