By BUNN NEGARA
A MEETING on March 15 between representatives of the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia) heralds the resumption of peace talks on the future of Mindanao.
Always a delicate process with no guarantee of success, the “talk about talks” will determine the scope and extent of larger negotiations in the Philippines, where a Malaysia-led international monitoring team (IMT) is arriving.
Nine countries have dispatched or offered military, police and civilian officials to ensure conditions on the ground remain conducive to continuing on-off talks to end the MILF insurgency after three whole decades.
In 1981, the MILF split from the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) fighting for the Bangsamoro Muslim community on Mindanao island, which has battled colonial rule for five centuries.
To the MILF, the MNLF has been co-opted and neutralised by the Manila establishment, a view strengthened by continuing underdevelopment in Mindanao.
Besides Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, Japan, Libya, Norway, Qatar and the European Union have pledged personnel to tend to the ceasefire required for talks to resume. The unarmed foreign troop presence is designed to boost mutual confidence between the two contending parties for the talks to succeed.
Malaysia’s leading role began in 2001, and multilateral monitors emerged three years later.
Since then, the talks have had a chequered record with ceasefires alternating with renewed outbreaks of hostilities.
Malaysia is recognised by all parties as a competent honest broker, being not just a fellow Asean member and prominent member of the Non-Aligned Movement and the Organisation of the Islamic conference, but also a next-door neighbour with long-established people-to-people links between Sabah and Mindanao.
This reflects the more meaningful ties between people compared with the alleged connection between the MILF and Indonesia’s Jemaah Islamiyah (JI).
But given the failure of talks in the past, the persistent question that remains is what are the chances of peace talks this time?
According to reports, the prospects do not seem promising.
Only weeks ago, the MILF said it was not optimistic.
There may also be a hint of cynicism in Manila’s efforts this time.
The Arroyo administration is due to expire on June 30 this year, and it may only be fishing for a grab at glory in the role of peacemaker.
The hurdles in the way of a lasting peace are not to be underestimated. Frustration with the years-long policy of moving Christian settlers to Mindanao until they outnumber the Muslim Moros has long been an issue, so demography adds to governance issues among the contentions.
The MILF has also sometimes been tainted by external parties with allegations of links to JI, the Abu Sayyaf criminal gang and by extension al-Qaeda.
But the Moro struggle predates all these, with no basis for presuming any link between the MILF and any other group.
Occasional media misinterpretations and diplomatic misperception have thus been unhelpful to negotiations or understanding.
In 2005, then acting US ambassador to the Philippines Joseph Mussomeli described Mindanao as a “new Afghanistan” in being a supposed hive of terrorist activity, provoking protests from Manila.
Then in 2008, a Philippine court decision ruled against a proposal to grant the rebels customary rights to their ancestral homeland.
That verdict revived hostilities, causing 400 more deaths and making 700,000 homeless, setting back peace talks until this week.
The prospect of negotiations now may not be as positive as optimists would prefer, but it may also not be as negative as pessimists expect.
The fact that Manila seems to be angling for a place in history by establishing peace could help make a difference.
The MILF is not setting preconditions beyond the demand that its right to self-determination be recognised.
nBunn Negara is a columnist with The Star newspaper in Malaysia. He was formerly an analyst with the Institute of Strategic Studies in Kuala Lumpur.