COTABATO CITY, Philippines (Reuters) - Malaysian peacekeepers began a phased withdrawal from the Philippines’ troubled south on Saturday, raising worries that decades of Muslim rebellion in the mainly Catholic nation may resume.
Twenty-eight of 41 Malaysian soldiers and police officers were picked up by two army transport planes at three points on the southern island of Mindanao and flown to a base in the Malaysian province of Sabah.
The remnants of the 60-member International Monitoring Team (IMT), including 10 soldiers from Brunei, eight from Libya and a Japanese development worker, were expected to pack their bags and go home by the end of August.
Major-General Yasin Mat Daud, head of the Malaysian-led IMT, said the team had laid the foundation for peace to take root in the Philippines’ most resource-rich region, holding the ceasefire between security forces and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) guerrillas since 2004.
“We have mixed feelings about leaving Mindanao,” Yasin told Reuters, watching soldiers file into the belly of one of two twin-engine Casa-235 transporters while Filipino troops helped load equipment into another plane.
“We’re happy because we’re returning to our families, but, we’re also sad because we’re leaving behind an unfinished dream. We’re still hoping to see the government and the MILF sign a peace treaty soon. That’s also our dream.”
Malaysia said it was pulling out its peacekeepers because of the lack of progress in peace talks, which have been stalled since December 2007. But it has said it will continue to broker the peace talks.
The 11,000-member MILF has been in stop-start negotiations with the government for more than a decade to end the near 40-year conflict, which has killed more than 120,000 people and
stunted growth in Mindanao.
Mindanao is the poorest region in the Philippines but is believed to contain oil, natural gas and mineral reserves estimated at up to $1 trillion. There has been little development there because of the fighting.
Some mining companies and palm oil manufacturers have begun to show interest in Mindanao, especially since the government and the MILF signed a fresh ceasefire and resumed peace negotiations in 2003. Foreign aid has also begun flowing to the area.
But if hostilities resume after the withdrawal of the peacekeepers, as many fear, both current and prospective investors could be scared away, analysts have said.
They also worry a bigger conflict could spill over into neighboring states and strengthen the hand of Islamic militants in Southeast Asia.
But, by and large, Muslims in the south appear unwilling to return to the cycle of violence. Some analysts also say that the government has no stomach for resuming a protracted fight and, while there may be several isolated cases of violence, full-blown hostilities were unlikely.
Major-General Raymundo Ferrer, the most senior army commander in the Cotabato area on Mindanao, said he was expecting a rise in militant activities in coming weeks.
“The people on the ground have begun to feel the build-up of tension that might affect the ceasefire,” Ferrer said.
The MILF, which feted the peacekeepers at its jungle headquarters on Friday, has expressed similar fears.
“There’s so much uncertainty after August,” Ghadzali Jaafar, one of the MILF’s top three leaders, told Reuters after
distributing certificates of appreciation to each of the Malaysian peacekeepers at the jungle base.
Masafumi Nagaishi, the only Japanese member in the IMT, said his government has no intention to stop nearly 200 million pesos ($4.7 million) worth of social and economic projects in conflict areas in the south.
“I am getting more worried over security issues when the IMT is pulled out late this year,” Nagaishi said after exchanging handshakes with departing monitors at Cotabato airport.
“Of course, we want to continue supporting Mindanao, but it all depends now on the actual security on the ground. I am afraid that if there’s no more IMT on the ground, security will worsen.”
Reporting by Manny Mogato; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Alex Richardson