Manila – Even as the Philippine government was engaging the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in peace talks, the United States was at one time eager to place the group on its list of foreign terrorist organisations due to the latter's links with the Jemaah Islamiah (JI) terror network. However, in a change of heart,Washington has now acknowledged that a peace agreement between the Philippine government and the MILF holds the key to counter-terrorism efforts in the southern island of Mindanao – and neutralising JI.
In a major policy statement during his visit to Manila recently, Mr Henry Crumpton, the US State Department coordinator for counter-terrorism, said that successful negotiations "will require the MILF to participate and help the Philippine government in counter-terrorism efforts".
"This is the right way to go. We also believe that when an accord is signed, it will put enormous pressure on JI and the Abu Sayyaf Group in the long term, this is the most effective way forward."
For the past seven years, successive Philippine governments have been engaged in on-again, off-again talks with the MILF. There is now cautious optimism that a peace agreement may finally be signed by the middle of next year. The sense of urgency to conclude a peace pact stems from the government's realisation thatMindanao – the MILF stronghold – has become more than just a training base for JI.
"There is a critical mass of senior JI operatives (in Mindanao), not just young recruits. Many now see Mindanao as a base of operations, rather than a rear training area," said Mr Zachary Abuza, in a recent study on the Abu Sayyaf.
A senior Philippine intelligence official says that a final agreement with the MILF will enable the government to fully go after the terrorists. In the past, the military's pursuit of JI and Abu Sayyaf operatives had often been encumbered by the need to take into consideration the sensitivities of the peace talks. For example, there have been instances when the military’s pursuit of these terrorists led to ceasefire violations.
If a peace agreement is signed, the military will no longer face such political restrictions. The MILF is also expected to end its ties with JI and Abu Sayyaf in order to keep its end of the agreement.
Both the Arroyo government and the MILF have said that they have reached "breakthroughs" and that the ceasefire has held. Since last May, there have been no new skirmishes and the overall number of violations has declined since last year.
* Peace with separatists, war on terrorists (The Sunday Times, Nov 20)