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Aquino’s peace deal in tatters

A soldier sits amongst burned houses destroyed during the stand-off with government forces in Zamboanga, the Philippines, on Saturday.
A soldier sits amongst burned houses destroyed during the stand-off with government forces in Zamboanga, the Philippines, on Saturday. AFP

Aquino’s peace deal in tatters

It's a strange world. Over the past fortnight, front-page headlines have focused on a brutal terrorist attack at the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital city.

Al Shabab guerrillas, fighting to set up an Islamist state in neighbouring Somalia, infiltrated the shopping centre and murdered more than 70 civilians.

Of course, it was shocking and deserved to be covered at length in the world’s press.

But a similar episode, which began three weeks ago and still continues in the southern Philippine city of Zamboanga, has rated fewer headlines and yet wreaked far greater death and destruction.

Whatever the reason for the skewed coverage, the carnage in Zamboanga has more significance for this region, especially for countries like Myanmar and Thailand, which also have large and disaffected Muslim communities.

The Zamboanga siege began when hundreds of Moro National Liberation Front fighters landed by boat and stormed into the city, taking hostages and occupying several waterfront districts, which they still hold today.

More than 150 people have been killed, buildings torched and destroyed and about 120,000 residents forced to seek refuge elsewhere.

Parts of the city, a major port and trading centre with a population of nearly one million, remain a war zone where bodies are left to rot on the streets. The stench is said to be unbearable.

Last week another Muslim rebel group, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, assaulted Midsayap, a town in central Mindanao. Again, hostages were taken and gun battles and deaths followed.

Yet the world’s media still paid scant attention. That may change, however, if not only Zamboanga and Midsayap, but other cities go up in flames.

What now looks sure to go up in flames is Philippine President Benigno Aquino’s framework agreement to grant the Muslim region greater autonomy and thus bring peace and stability.

Unfortunately, this agreement, signed last October with the most powerful Muslim group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, has had the opposite effect – carnage and discord have ensued.

The problem is that Aquino dealt only with the dominant MILF, thinking the other dissident groups were in decline and could be marginalised.

He was mistaken. And now, with their assaults on Zamboanga and Midsayap and elsewhere, and the mini-invasion of Sabah earlier this year, they are proving him wrong.

Aquino belatedly sought to draw the others into the peace process, but it was too late and anyway the more assertive MILF would have resisted such a move.

Its chief negotiator, vice-chairman Ghazali Jaafar, is an astute operator, as I discovered when spending time with him at his base just outside Cotabato City.

After inking the agreement with Aquino, Ghazali said: “We are very happy. We thank the president for this.”

And why not? They got the whole pie and have no intention of giving any of it up.

So what to do? The rebel groups are all heavily armed and their men are seasoned veterans who have been waging secessionist campaigns for decades and who will not easily be brought to one table.

The sad prospect is for more Zamboanga-style bloodshed and mass destruction that will make Kenya’s Westgate Mall tragedy seem a rather petty affair.

After all, consider the relatively minor attack on Midsayap.

It was the work of a group that split from the MILF for the same reason as the MILF split from the MNLF – because they would not settle for limited autonomy.

Ghazali’s men wanted more, and they got it under the agreement with Aquino, but it was still limited in that national security and foreign policy will remain under Manila’s control.

Muslim hardliners cannot stomach that, and wanting nothing less than full independence, they broke away and formed the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters – and began their own violent campaign.

So it’s a mess. And Aquino’s much lauded peace agreement, which has ended up causing havoc and bloodshed, is now sadly destined to bite the dust.

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