In Quezón City, the capital of the Philippines until 1976, the calls for peace are painted in bright colours. A peace mural in Quezón Memorial Circle reads: "There is hope in the peace process. Peace in Mindanao." And perhaps this message is finally being heard.
On 5 May the latest peace dialogue meeting between the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the Philippine government got underway.
At this meeting, the MILF confirmed its intention to abandon its historical objective: a complete independence and self-determination of Mindanao, the ancestral land of Moro people. The rebel group is now seeking "partial autonomy". In this partial autonomy, Moro people will have control over local government, but Manila will keep control of national security, foreign affairs and currency.
Furthermore, the MILF said it "doesn’t seek independence or secession from the Republic of the Philippines." The aim is the establishment of a Moro state "within the Philippines".
This is a positive development in a 12-year-long peace process. The new goals of the rebel group may soften the opposition to Moro self-determination. Even so there remain powerful opponents to any deal, including the Filipino Catholic political elite and the wealthy landowners in Mindanao.
In this ultra devoted Catholic country of 90 million people, an agreement giving total control of Mindanao to Muslims was never going to fly. After a massive process of Christianisation in the south of the Philippines, this ancestral Muslim land is home now to nine million Catholics and four million Muslims.
The opposition to Moro self-determination is widely popular not only among the Catholic elite, but also among common Filipinos. In chic Makati in Manila to the seedy allies of Remedios, the popular view is that the "Muslims are a small group and they can’t have autonomy."
Filipino leaders have been reluctant to take on this popular opposition — along with the Catholic policy makers and powerful landowners in Mindanao.
But this is what seems to be happening now with President Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino. Aquino, who came to power in 2010, has been credited putting the need for a peaceful resolution to the so-called Moro problem on the national agenda. He is considered a more progressive leader than his most recent predecessors Joseph Estrada and Gloria Arroyo. As far as Mindanao was concerned, peace negotiations collapsed when Estrada and then Arroyo declared "all out war" against the MILF.
Aquino’s pledge to settle the conflict was followed by concrete actions. He set up a team of government negotiators who got to work relatively quickly, meeting with leaders of the MILF in Malaysia in February. Described as "exploratory", it was the first of several meetings that have been held this year. Most of them have been hosted by Malaysia, a country that is playing a key role in the peace process.
The President is not having an easy time of it. His decision to take on those forces opposed to an agreement with the MILF has made him a target of Catholic commentators and of the influential Filipino Catholic Church itself. Over Easter, a holiday taken very seriously by Filipinos, Aquino was savaged almost daily in the media by Catholic punters.
He was labelled "a bad Catholic" when he decided to work during Easter and commentators went to great lengths to remind Filipinos that their president is a 51-year-old unmarried man. Perhaps, it was this pressure that forced President Aquino to do the Lenten bisita iglesia, a kind of church crawl where faithfuls drop in to as many churches as they can all day long.
Even so, Aquino seems determined to push ahead with the peace negotiations. He has pledged a "peaceful and just settlement of the conflict" before his six year term expires in 2016.
Peace settlements have been reached in the past in the Philippines — but they have always been disappointing. The 1996 Peace Agreement between the Philippine government and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) — the other major Muslim separatist organisation — achieved little.
The most important outcome of the 1996 settlement was the radicalisation of the conflict. A split faction of the MNLF left to form the MILF.
The flawed 1996 agreement cost the MLNF legitimacy and political influence. Now the MILF — with 15,000 fighters and strong Muslim support — is the most powerful Islamic rebel group in the Philippines. And it is a political savvy movement. After 9/11, the leaders of the rebel group quickly moved to distance themselves from any association with Islamist terrorist organisations — such as such as Jeemaah Islamiah (JI) — operating in Mindanao. The group has assisted the government in cases of kidnapping and in the search for terrorists — and it is not included on the US list of terrorist organisations.
The conflict has already claimed about 160,000 lives and created more than two million refugees. The 40-year conflict has ruined Mindanao. According to the United Nations Development Programme, the annual per capita income is around US$340.
Mindanao is one of the wealthiest regions in the Philippines in terms of natural resources. It is rich in minerals, natural gas and oil. And the land and sea are fertile sources of food. There is, however, a shortage of food. Most local people work in agriculture and fishing and the constant fighting prevents them from developing these activities.
While the peace process seems to be heading into the right direction, apart from the staunch Catholic opposition, a new obstacle on the road to peace has arisen. in April one of the key commanders of the MILF — Ameril Umbrato Kato — defected to form a new guerrilla group with around one thousand fighters. He has accused the MILF leadership of turning its back on the historic claims for an independent Muslim nation in Mindanao.
They could seriously undermine the peace negotiations. Already skirmishes involving this splinter group have caused dozen of deaths. Kato, a 70-year-old fighter, is a hardliner within the Islamic movement. In 2008, he launched a major attack on Christian communities in Mindanao. More than 400 people were killed then. He is now threatening to kill the peace process.
The Moro conflict has been characterised as one of exclusion and marginalisation. In Mindanao Christian Filipinos are in control. They own the land and run the political decision process. Muslims are second-class citizens with no role to play in decision-making. This is what the peace process is trying to resolve.
There are major challenges ahead, however the meeting in Quezón City showed that the combination of factors are ripe for a peaceful settlement. On the one hand, the MILF is willing to renounce independence and settle for limited autonomy; and on the other, the Filipino government has shown a decisive political will to reach a comprehensive peace settlement.
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