MANILA (Reuters) - As Malaysia starts pulling out unarmed peace monitors from the southern Philippines this week, fears have arisen of renewed fighting between Manila’s security forces and the country’s largest Muslim rebel group.
The apprehension grew after 200 members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) forced thousands of Christian settlers to flee from a rice farming village on the resource-rich but troubled southern island of Mindanao last week.
Security forces have been sent to the mainly Christian village in Kalamansig town, but they have so far avoided confronting the Muslim rebels who claim the area is part of their ancestral homeland under a 2003 ceasefire agreement.
Analysts believe such threats to the fragile truce in the area might increase in the weeks ahead, but the danger of another full-blown conflict, last seen in the early 2000s, seems remote.
“I am optimistic that the ceasefire will hold even without the Malaysians as long as both sides remained committed to the peace process,” said Benedicto Bacani, executive director of Notre Dame University’s Institute for Autonomy and Governance.
“There might be a few bomb explosions here and skirmishes there. These could just highlight the dangers of further delays in talks, but the MILF will not risk another all-out war.”
Mindanao is believed to contain oil, natural gas and mineral reserves estimated at up to one trillion dollars. But there Has been little development there because of decades of 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 started peace negotiations in 2003. But an outbreak of hostilities could scare away both current and prospective investors, analysts have said.
Bacani said he doubted the MILF would risk the gains it had achieved through negotiations, including millions of dollars worth of social and economic projects in Muslim communities.
Japan, Australia, the United States, Canada, the European Union and the World Bank have poured an initial $5-10 million in development projects in conflict-affected areas on Mindanao and pledged $50-100 million more once a peace deal is signed.
Mars Buan of the Pacific Strategies & Assessments risk consultancy said the relative peace enjoyed in the south had arguably more to do with the reality on the ground that the presence of international monitors.
Buan said Manila lacks the financial resources and has very limited capability to defeat the MILF, while the rebels have no more stomach for the type of protracted violence that had ravaged the region for nearly 40 years.
“These fundamentals will continue to dominate the realities of Islamic separatism in the south, not deft diplomacy or token peacekeeping operations to keep the dogs of war at bay,” she said.
The 11,000-member MILF has been in on-and-off negotiations with the government for more than a decade to end a conflict that has killed more than 120,000 people, displaced 2 million and kept the island as one of the country’s poorest regions.
The most recent round of peace talks has been stalled since December 2007, when the MILF accused the government of changing a number points in a proposed agreement on a Muslim homeland in the south.
Apart from providing the venue for peace talks, Malaysia’s leadership of the 60-member peace monitoring team has helped reduce tension between security forces and Muslim guerrillas.
From a high of nearly 700 incidents of ceasefire violations in 2002, the presence of peace monitors from Malaysia, Brunei, Libya and Japan was instrumental in bringing down the number of violent incidents to about a dozen from 2005 to the present.
Malaysia, whose eastern Sabah state is already home to tens of thousands of Filipino illegal immigrants and refugees, is pulling out its troops to show its displeasure over the stalemate in the peace talks.
“It is the signal that Kuala Lumpur is fed up with the lack of progress,” said Yang Razali Kassim, senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University.
“It is even prepared to face the possibility of heightened security risks and all the attendant problems,” he said.
Mohaqher Iqbal, the rebels’ chief negotiator, said there was no guarantee the truce would hold when Malaysia starts its phased withdrawal on May 10 because of the growing impatience of some of the MILF field commanders.
“The government is creating a dangerous impression that it is not sincere in finding a political solution to the problem in Mindanao,” Iqbal told Reuters in an interview.
“I really don’t want to paint a grim scenario, but the longer the government takes to call for talks to resume, the more danger that we may fall into the hands of the hawks in both our sides.”
Bacani said however that pressures from the international community as well as the political situation in Manila should prevail.
“The rebels have already gained a lot of concessions even if they have not signed any formal peace agreement, so they will not risk it,” he said.
“I don’t think the government would also risk it given the problems of the government on the rising costs of food and fuel and the political noise in Manila. When the Malaysians leave, there could be some hiccup, but the situation on the ground should remain.”
Additional reporting by Jalil Hamid in Kuala Lumpur