Amid obstacles and fears, Manila shows readiness to sign peace deal with MILF
With ratification expected in mid-March, the deal should lead to the creation of an autonomous Muslim region. "Everyone wants peace," PIME missionary says, but there are "clouds on the horizon." As some issues remain unresolved issues, like the region's borders and natural resource development, the Catholic Church takes steps to "strengthen" dialogue in the region.

Manila (AsiaNews) - Filipino President Benigno Aquino is ready to sign a peace agreement with Muslim separatists in Mindanao, an agreement that could put an end to one of the longest (and bloodiest) separatist wars in Asia. However, some guerrilla factions remain hostile to the deal whilst some groups within the Filipino state might scuttle it, frustrating years of diplomatic work.

After negotiations wrapped up last month, the president is expected to sign a permanent ceasefire with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) by mid-March.

As a sign of good will, Manila yesterday released Muslim rebel leader Wahid Tundok whose recent arrest threatened to jeopardise the deal.

"Everyone wants peace and an end to the violence," Fr Sebastiano D'Ambra told AsiaNews. A priest with the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME), he is the founder of the Silsilah movement, which for years has encouraged Muslim-Christian dialogue and peace in the southern Philippines.

Very knowledgeable about local issues and familiar with past attempts to achieve peace, the clergyman acknowledges that "the deal will face some practical obstacles and more violence cannot be excluded."

MILF is an armed group that has for decades fought for the independence of Mindanao, an island rich in natural resources.

Thousands of people have paid the price for a war that has held back economically the region, considered a treasure trove in terms of raw materials estimated to be worth US$ 312 billion.

On 24 January, the two sides signed a peace agreement in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, which opens the way for the creation of a Muslim autonomous region in Bangsamoro, slated to be up and running by 2016.

The deal provides for Muslim self-government in Mindanao in exchange of a cease-fire and rebel disarmament.

However, not all rebel groups have signed up for the deal. And opposition within the Filipino state can still derail the peace deal.

Formed by former MILF members, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) has a bloody history, and is a major opponent to the deal. At present, it is still recruiting among fighters unwilling to give up their weapons.

Back in September, a MILF rival, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), also tried to stop peace talks by launching a campaign of attacks and violence that left more than 200 people dead.

Congress could be an obstacle because some members oppose the draft proposal. The same goes for the Supreme Court, which could find some of its parts unconstitutional.

"The situation is not very clear," said Fr D' Ambra. "Even if a deal is struck on 11 or 12 March, there are many doubts about some issues that are not clearly defined."

According to the missionary, who over the years has closely followed the talks between the government and Muslim rebels, some issues still need to be ironed out, like disarming the rebels, defining regional borders and promoting natural resource development.

Manila is trying to overcome resistance in Congress and the Supreme Court so that the deal can be ratified. However, the definition of "land and water" and their use remain issues that still need discussion.

The government "wants to finalise negotiations" in order to send a strong political signal, but for many there are still "clouds on the horizon." Some economic, cultural and territorial issues are preventing a deal, "like Zamboanga's refusal to come under Bangsamoro's jurisdiction".

"Although everyone wants peace, the agreement does not reassure stakeholders," Fr D'Ambra said, "because certain things remain unresolved."

Meanwhile, the Filipino Church has launched an initiative aimed at administrators, schools and universities to gather next month in Manila (19 March) and Cebu (20 March) to discuss the peace agreement.

The goal is to come up with a road map that helps all the parties involved promote and enhance peace in the region.

Catholic leaders want the negotiating parties to strengthen the process of dialogue by allowing all factions to express themselves and making sure that any deal is not only dictated by political ambitions, but encompasses a true and genuine desire for peace and development for the people.