With the peace process in tatters and no clear way forward, many fear that the gains of 11 years of negotiations are fast disappearing amid recriminations and communal mistrust.
"The opportunity for a democratic and peaceful solution to the conflict is becoming narrower and narrower," says Abhoud Lingga, director of the Institute for Bangsamoro Studies in Mindanao. "For us peace advocates, this is alarming."
The town of Aleosan lies on the faultline of communal divisions in Mindanao. The Moros – as Muslims here call themselves – regard this and surrounding areas as part of their ancestral homeland. But much of Aleosan's land has now been owned and farmed for decades by Christians from the central Philippines, who settled here after World War II with government encouragement.
Sitting in his sunlit office here, Aleosan mayor Loreto Cabaya says he helped organize a civilian militia – including some ilaga – to prevent Muslim rebels from grabbing land ahead of a peace deal. The deal, which was supposed to be signed this past summer, envisioned an expanded Muslim autonomous area with greater control over its resources and revenue. Seven of Aleosan's 19 barangay (villages) – those with Muslim-heavy populations – looked set to become part of that Muslim area.
It never happened. Instead, the Philippines Supreme Court issued an 11-hour injunction blocking the government from signing the deal. Later, it ruled the deal unconstitutional, arguing it would have effectively partitioned the Philippines.
Mr. Cabaya agrees. He says he can accept giving the Muslims more land and autonomy, but he thinks the proposed deal went too far. "I think the conflict will be worse if demands of the MILF are met, because their demand is [for] a separate state," says Cabaya. "It's being disguised as autonomy, but in essence it's a separate state."