Saturday, January 10, 2009

Marooned in Mindanao

Humanitarian crisis brews in southern Philippines

Sunday, December 21, 2008

TALAYAN TOWN, Philippines: The 50 soldiers came into Hassan Kalipa's home in broad daylight, looking for rebels. He served them coconuts.

Later that day - Aug. 29 - gunfire erupted a couple of kilometers away from Kalipa's village of Linamunan, in the southern Philippines, which has seen an upsurge in fighting between government forces and rebels from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in recent months.

The soldiers moved a mortar into the village to fire on the rebels. So, fearful of getting caught in the cross-fire, Kalipa, 31, and other Muslim farmers and their families fled their village.

They ended up in a camp in a public market here, about seven kilometers, or four miles, from Linamunan.

Kalipa and his fellow villagers are among hundreds of thousands of civilians whose lives have been turned upside down by conflict in the southern Philippines.

More than 2,000 are living in tents and thatched huts in the evacuation camp in the predominantly Muslim province of Maguindanao. Kalipa says some of the displaced return to their villages during the day to farm rice, coconut and corn fields, then come back to sleep in the camps.

They will not go back for good until the military leaves - and takes its mortar with it. "We're afraid to go back to our homes," Kalipa said.

The displaced villagers are the human fallout of a political failure: the breakdown in August of the peace process between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. Four months after talks broke down and violence erupted, the lives of the villagers remain on hold.

As far as such conflicts go, casualties are low - which may explain the relative lack of attention to this troubled corner of Southeast Asia. In a report in late October, the International Crisis Group estimated that more than 200 had died in renewed violence since August, half of them civilians.

The relatively small numbers are due to the nature of this war. The military is playing a cat-and-mouse game with three MILF commanders blamed for attacks on civilian areas in August, with only occasional, brief engagements that often produce no casualties.

But even if casualties are light, a heavy climate of fear has paralyzed entire communities and polarized them along religious lines. The result, say aid workers, rights groups and others, is one of the worst humanitarian situations since all-out war raged on the island of Mindanao in the 1970s.

In a report in late October, Amnesty International accused both sides of human rights abuses. It says that the conflict displaced 610,000 at its peak.

Some 240,000 people have since returned to their homes; the rest are still living in relatives' homes or in primitive evacuation camps. The International Committee of the Red Cross says it has delivered food and aid to nearly 130,000 in 100 such camps.

"While the armed conflict in the Philippines's south is not new, the number of civilians directly affected by this most recent escalation of hostilities has increased dramatically, with no clear end in sight," Amnesty International said in the report. If perpetrators of rights abuses are not brought to justice and violations continue, the group said, "Mindanao may find itself approaching a human rights crisis."

One obstacle to talks is what to do about the three "rogue" commanders. The MILF wants a halt to military operations against the three and an independent investigation into allegations of atrocities. But the government considers them criminals who must face justice.

"They must take control of those people," Hermogenes Esperon, presidential adviser on the peace process, said in an interview at his office in the capital, Manila. "Otherwise, how could we be talking at the negotiating table?"

Still, the government is optimistic about the resumption of talks. It recently named the head of a new negotiating panel and says talks could resume by Christmas. But the MILF poured cold water on that, saying Dec. 14 in a statement on its Web site that the government's recent comments were "empty talk."

Even if the two sides do resume dialogue, the way forward in the peace process is far from clear. After 11 years of on-and-off negotiations, the MILF had accepted a preliminary deal, due to be signed Aug. 5, that would have expanded an autonomous Muslim area and given it greater control over its resources and revenues.

But Christian leaders in Mindanao loudly opposed that deal, fearing some Christian areas could come under Muslim control. They helped persuade the Philippine Supreme Court to issue an injunction against the agreement. The court later ruled the deal unconstitutional, arguing it would have effectively partitioned the Philippines.

Looking back, most analysts and observers put most of the blame for the breakdown on the government. They say it did not sufficiently consult with affected communities ahead of a deal and did not shore up support in Manila for the agreement. The MILF "has reason to feel deeply dismayed about what happened with the court rulings," said a U.S. official who did not want to be quoted by name discussing sensitive peace negotiations.

"The government underestimated the public backlash to the settlement, and they were caught off guard," said Scott Harrison, managing director of Pacific Strategies and Assessments, a risk consultancy. "They felt they could ramrod this through and everyone would just sign on the dotted line. But it raised a firestorm."

In an interview at his Cotabato City home, the MILF spokesman Eid Kabalu blamed President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo's administration for failing to win consensus on the Aug. 5 deal from the legislative and judicial branches. Kabalu said that the rebels want to resume talks but that some now question the administration's sincerity in wanting a deal.

"Many believe a peace deal isn't really possible under this president," he said. But he added that the group would give the government "the benefit of the doubt, to prove we are really for peace."

They may have little choice. Forty years of fighting has shown that there is no military solution to the problem in Mindanao, many specialists say, including Esperon, the government peace adviser, and Abhoud Syed Lingga, director of the Institute of Bangsamoro Studies, a nonprofit nongovernmental research institute in Cotabato City.

"The situation now is moving toward a strategic stalemate," Lingga said in an interview at his office. "There are no good options for both sides except to negotiate a solution."

Back in the evacuation camps, the civilians wait. Aid groups are helping, but conditions are still rough. Kalipa said 11 people had died in his camp in recent weeks, suffering from diarrhea and high fever.

Amigos Maminto, 60, has been displaced for the second time. In the 1970s, as war raged in Mindanao between the military, Muslim rebels, and Christian and Muslim vigilantes, Maminto and many others fled their homes.

Some 35 years later, he has once again fled his home in Linamunan, this time with four of his children and several grandchildren.

"As long as there is no peace deal between the government and MILF, I expect a similar situation in the future," Maminto said. "I fear fighting will happen again."

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