The latest round of fighting and consequent displacements in Mindanao have not daunted negotiators seeking a settlement between Muslim separatist rebels and the Filipino government, say officials.
Teresita Deles, the government’s chief adviser to the peace process – now in its eighth year – told IRIN that talks were continuing, even during recent fighting between the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and government troops, though with difficulty.
Both sides met on 4 November in Kuala Lumpur in an effort to contain the violence that erupted in late October.
“Regarding recent incidents, particularly in Al-Barka [rebel base in Basilan Province, south Mindanao], the two parties likewise agreed that investigations through the ceasefire mechanisms [in 2003 peace agreement] shall continue to be conducted,” said Deles.
Some 10,000 people are still displaced in five townships of Zamboanga Sibugay Province – adjacent to Basilan – after fighting that once again transformed farms into battlefields, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
Most of the displaced are expected to return home soon, even in the midst of continuing military operations, according to Muktar Ali Farad, head of OCHA’s sub-office based in the south.
“Of particular concern is the protection of civilians who had fled the fighting and gone into some areas amid the [military] operation,” Farad explained.
“Right now, military operations are going on in some areas, and these have become highly insecure, and it remains very, very risky for civilians and for international NGOs and humanitarian workers to access them. It has been very difficult for us.”
Many civilians fear returning to their villages where they may be caught in crossfire, he added.
The military said these strikes were aimed at flushing out “lawless elements” among the MILF and were not meant to scuttle the peace process.
In particular, Deles said the military was pursuing a rebel unit headed by Dan Laksaw Asnawi, a former MILF rebel leader, who she said was now engaged in banditry.
Local NGOs have had limited success reaching areas the government has targeted in its “mopping-up” operation to root out remaining fighters.
Elson Monato of Mindanao Tulong Bakwit (MTB), a local NGO that monitors mass displacements in the south, called on both sides to allow humanitarian workers access.
Calls for an “all-out war” against the rebels from some local government officials could only raise tensions in Mindanao further, he warned.
“We don’t want to see massive displacements like the one in 2008 and if these hostilities continue all our rehabilitation and early recovery efforts for those displaced in the earlier conflict could be all for naught,” Monato said.
He said his group was working with other agencies to try to assess the situation, but stressed the affected areas remained “highly dangerous”.
Attack and counter-attack
MILF fighters ambushed and killed 19 government troops, who they said strayed into their camp in late October on Basilan Island in southern Mindanao, where Islamists have fought for independence since the 1970s.
Days later, rebels killed six rubber plantation workers identified as Christian, and another eight policemen and soldiers, according to the government.
Following the attacks, the military launched punitive strikes on a rebel stronghold, forcing more than 11,000 families (more than 50,000 people), to flee their homes in Zamboanga Sibugay, while in Basilan, an additional 9,120 families were evacuated, according to OCHA.
The strikes were the biggest against the 12,000-strong MILF since 2008, when about 400 combatants and civilians were killed and more than 750,000 were displaced.
Deles said the MILF was cooperating with the government in the hunt for the renegade rebels and with an international monitoring mission headed by Malaysia, which is overseeing the 2003 ceasefire agreement.
“Make no mistake about it, we will hold them to their word,” she said. “Despite present challenges, let me still say that the prospect for peace remains intact. I do believe that on the peace table miracles are waiting to happen.”