At last, an end to the troubles in Mindanao is in sight
DECADES: that is how long Asia's most protracted conflict in the southern Philippines has been going on for, at a cost of some 150,000 lives.
For years, Malaysia has headed an international mediation effort, but neither side could summon the political will and unity of purpose at the same time to forge a settlement. During the presidency of Corazon Aquino, a peace based on autonomy was agreed on but that fell apart from a demography that had been altered by inward migration, which had turned the indigenous Bangsamoro into a fraction of the population of Mindanao. Hope, however, is in the air under the administration of Aquino's son, Benigno, an interlocutor who has stood his ground for a peaceful resolution despite the clashes and loss of life now attributed to renegades.
Obviously, in Aquino Jr's strong character, much optimism rests not only for the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, but also Malaysia, which has tried long and hard to bring the two sides together. Such was the fatigue over this unyielding problem that when Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak said he expected a deal at the end of the year after meeting Aquino during the Apec Summit in Vladivostok, Russia, last weekend, it took a while to sink in. Both Manila and the Moros are now almost on the same page and progress is tantalisingly perched on the horizon. For Malaysia, the scenario is encouraging if both sides continue to wish for Kuala Lumpur to take the initiative as negotiator, as voiced by the MILF leaders, who will accept no one else as diplomatic go-between to close the gap between the Manila offer and their demands. On the table is an improved framework dubbed an "enhanced autonomy", which also involves economic development, and Manila's recognition of the "'Bangsamoros' historical ties to the land".
To a people with a millennial claim and distinctive civilisation in that corner of the archipelago, the latter is a matter of pride. The Moros have thus made a big concession by giving up separatism and accepting a political arrangement under Philippine sovereignty. Here, the Malaysian Federation can offer an example. Not only are diverse ethnic groups in harmony, more importantly they have invested their future in working for economic progress and national integration. Putrajaya is encouraged by what it views as a positive approach by Aquino, who is staking much political capital on satisfying Moro self-determination in combination with economic development for the whole island of Mindanao. An end to the insurgency and respect for an indigenous minority cannot but add lustre to the Philippines' now rising reputation.