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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

MAKING THE DEAL SICK

Manila's peace plan for the south deserves cheers and support


WILL ASIA'S HOPES FOR peace in the Philippine south, with its 5 million Muslims, be fulfilled? The rotten vegetables and angry boos that pummeled President Fidel Ramos during his recent visit to Mindanao island do not augur well for the draft accord recently negotiated between his government and the Moro National Liberation Front. Led by Mr. Nur Misuari and supported by the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC), the MNLF is the main rebel force fighting for autonomy for 14 provinces and 10 cities with significant Muslim populations. Under the peace deal due to be signed in Jakarta this month, Mr. Misuari is to head a transitional council that will oversee the area. But leaders of predominantly Christian constituencies oppose the plan; they believe the MNLF chief still aims to rebel against the Constitution and the republic.

Mr. Misuari has moved to rebut their charge by announcing his candidacy for governor of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao, under the president's Lakas-NUCD party. The ARMM includes four Muslim-majority provinces, the only ones in the treaty area that chose autonomy in a constitutionally mandated referendum in 1989. The MNLF had long rejected the regional grouping as falling short of its demands. But Mr. Misuari's gubernatorial bid effectively ends his opposition to the ARMM and the Constitution that created it. He is expected to win virtually unopposed in September and thus cement his claim to the chairmanship of the transitional Southern Philippine Council for Peace and Development to be set up under the accord. As the key concession that persuaded the Front to make peace, the five-member SPCPD will coordinate policies and programs in areas covered by MNLF demands. Mr. Misuari hopes the council will do such a good job that most of their cities and provinces would vote for autonomy in a new referendum to be held in three or four years.

Mr. Ramos and Mr. Misuari have thus thrown their lot behind the cause of peace after 24 years of separatist war. The president is risking conflict with Catholic bishops and leaders in predominantly Christian areas who believe Manila has compromised their interests. Mr. Misuari meanwhile could face opposition among his followers for recognizing the ARMM. And he still has to sell the peace treaty to other Muslim rebels, including the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, a radical MNLF splinter group, and the extremist Abu Sayyaf, which has killed scores in its campaign of terror.

That Mindanao's war-weary people deserve a chance for peace and development is beyond question. While flaws in the MNLF accord should be addressed, they must not be allowed to scuttle the Jakarta signing. The Front should be flexible in its last remaining condition: the integration of its troops into the Philippine armed forces. Christian leaders have rightly insisted that the SPCPD confine itself to policy coordination, leaving actual governance to existing local authorities. Manila can help smooth the intervening period by making administrative arrangements for the region more transparent. And all sides should keep their cool and stay the course in the face of treaty violations, misunderstandings and pockets of bad faith that will inevitably test the peacemakers' resolve.

Then business and investment can finally enter the former battlefields and work their pacifying, enriching magic. The SPCPD should speed up this process in areas worst-hit by the war, through infrastructure projects, enterprise incentives and mass education. Provinces largely spared by the conflict should not begrudge this extra help; it is an investment in peace which will pay off for all of Mindanao. As MNLF-dominated areas rise out of their depressed state, their better-off constituents would be less likely to take up the sword again, even if they fail to achieve all their political aims in the future referendum. The pact will also allow the East ASEAN Growth Area, which includes Mindanao, Borneo and Sulawesi islands, to progress faster -- further nurturing peace and prosperity. Then come 1998, Filipinos can celebrate the centenary of their liberation from colonialism as an undivided nation, including the Muslims who resisted foreign rule for four centuries.

The rest of the region will have reason to cheer and hope. Harmony in Mindanao is coming with no small prodding from ASEAN and the OIC, which has pressed Mr. Misuari to accept Manila's compromise offer. The whole effort demonstrates how Asian governments can broker peace, especially with the region's festering insurgencies. The accord also shows what leaders who truly want a better life for their people can achieve with boldness and political resolve.


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