MANILA (Reuters) - Differences within the Philippine government on how to deal with the country’s largest Muslim separatist group led to the postponement of the latest round of peace talks, political analysts said on Wednesday.
An ongoing military offensive on two southern islands was the other complicating factor, they said. The offensive is said to be targeted at Abu Sayyaf rebels linked to al Qaeda, but ties of kinship are dragging in other Muslim groups and residents.
The government maintains that the talks with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), scheduled to begin on Wednesday, have only been temporarily postponed and will be held early next month, before the start of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.
It has also said the postponement was not connected to the offensive against Abu Sayyaf on the island of Basilan, where the MILF has many followers, and the nearby island of Jolo.
Analysts, however, said the postponement only underlined problems that have been dogging the talks for years.
“I haven’t been positive on the peace process for some time,” Christopher Collier, a political and security analyst at the Australian National University, told Reuters.
“It’s been clear since Afable’s resignation that hardliners have the upper hand in the Cabinet. The cancellation of the talks will only strengthen the hand of extremists within the
Silvestre Afable resigned as the government’s chief negotiator in June, saying he did not enjoy the full confidence of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.
The talks with the MILF have been stalled since September last year, bogged down in details of an ancestral homeland for the largely Roman Catholic country’s Muslims, where the MILF can be given some autonomy.
The rebellion of the Moros, as the Muslims of the southern Philippines are called, has lasted for nearly 40 years, killed more than 120,000 people and displaced 2 million others.
The government and the MILF agreed a truce in 2003, but the ceasefire is sporadically broken.
In 1996, the government agreed a peace deal with the Moro National Liberation Force (MNLF), an older separatist group, but that pact is also in disarray.
The MNLF has strong support on Jolo, the other island where troops are massed. Jolo and Basilan also contain hideouts of the Abu Sayyaf, a group the government has vowed to destroy and which it blames for recent attacks on the military.
But because of kinship and loyalty, many MNLF and MILF members have ties to Abu Sayyaf. Local politicians also have large private armies, armed to the teeth.
“In the thick of a fight, membership in an organization does not matter anymore,” said Julkipli Wadi, an Islamic studies professor at the University of the Philippines.
“Ethnic and blood relations are more important. That’s why you can’t use the Abu Sayyaf as a whipping boy in the south.”
Within the past month, more than 50 soldiers have been killed in fighting on Basilan and Jolo. Local commanders of both the MNLF and the MILF have said their cadres were involved.
A senior MILF leader said hawks in the government could be using the clashes to the scuttle the peace talks.
“I hope the government is not using these clashes as an excuse to delay the negotiations,” Mohaqher Iqbal, the rebels’ chief negotiator, told Reuters. “We feel the government is in total disarray on the peace process. It has no direction and the president is not showing her political will.”
Benedicto Bacani of the Institute for Autonomy and Governance at the Notre Dame University, also said Arroyo must show greater political will to end the conflict in the south.
“She said she wanted to leave a legacy in her last three years in office,” Bacani said.
“Then, she must show that she is not in survival mode and display political will to bring the generals, the warlords and other interest groups behind her peace policy.”
Collier and other analysts agreed.
The bottom line, Collier said was to “reinvigorate the ceasefire mechanisms and get the mainstream MNLF and MILF onside against the terrorists, instead of driving them into their arms.”