The violence serves as a reminder that, despite a historic accord with the Philippines' largest Muslim insurgent group, peace is not necessarily around the corner.
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Just days after reaching a historic peace deal with Islamic militants on the southern island of Mindanao, Philippines military officials announced Wednesday that in a major offensive this week, army forces had killed at least 37 guerrillas from a splinter group opposed to the accord.
Today's news came hard on the heels of an agreement last weekend between the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the government, whose negotiators last Saturday agreed on the final stage of a peace plan aimed at ending a 40-year-old conflict that has left 120,000 people dead.
Leaders of the breakaway Bangasamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), however, reject that plan, which offers autonomy for Muslim-dominated areas of Mindanao, since it falls short of full independence from Manila's rule.
Philippines President Benigno Aquino said on Wednesday that government troops are going after the renegade rebels “to seriously degrade their abilities to again act as (peace) spoilers,” reports Philippine broadcaster TV5.
The peace deal, expected to be signed within the next two months, would create an autonomous Muslim-dominated region in the south of the mainly Catholic country and put local government largely in charge of security. Local authorities are also promised much greater control over natural resources in Mindanao, holding out the prospect that peace could help put an end to the crushing poverty that afflicts much of the island.
The agreement, negotiated in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur after ten years of intermittent talks, specifies that the MILF’s 11,000 soldiers will disarm, and that those accused or convicted of rebellion charges will be granted amnesty.
The pact says that amnesty is designed to facilitate “healing the wounds of conflict and the return to normal life,” reports the Philippine Daily Inquirer.
The caveat is that MILF fighters would only surrender their weapons after after all the other armed groups in Mindanao have disarmed.
That is a tall order. The US has about 500 Special Forces troops in Mindanao, helping the Philippines to suppress another insurgency group, Abu Sayyaf, which has historic ties to Al Qaeda and preaches the creation of an Islamic state.
But Abu Sayyaf is not the only obstacle to smooth implementation of the new peace accord.
Though they have nothing to do with the ethnic and religious battles that the Moro have been fighting, the Communist Party’s New People’s Army is still a force to be reckoned with in some parts of Mindanao, and they have shown no desire to negotiate a peace treaty.
And besides the BIFF, a breakaway splinter from the MILF which the army calls a criminal organization that it plans to wipe out, there is the original Moro National Liberation Front, from which the MILF itself separated.
In 1996, the MNLF signed a peace agreement that created an autonomous zone in Mindanao. Its leaders are angry that the MILF's deal creates a new entity, Bangasamoro, that will supersede their stronghold.
MNLF militants raided the city of Zamboanga in protest last September, sparking three weeks of fighting that left nearly 250 people dead.
Against that sort of background, says The Economist’s Banyan blog, “It is little wonder then that the MILF has agreed to lay down its weapons only once everybody else has. Peace between the MILF and the government is one thing; peace in Mindanao is another.”