From Battlefield to Negotiating Table; Filipino Moro Rebels:

Article excerpt

MORO rebels, who Tuesday signed a formal ceasefire pact with the Philippine government, have waged a 30-year armed campaign to set up a state for the Muslim minority on the southern third of the mainly Roman Catholic southeast Asian archipelago.

The 12,500-member Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) is the major group still fighting the government. A second faction, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), signed a political settlement with Manila in 1996.

There is also the Abu Sayyaf group, made up of several hundred gunmen holding two Americans and 19 Filipino hostages in Basilan island. President Gloria Arroyo's government considers them bandits and has refused to negotiate with them.

Moro rebels say they are fighting to reverse centuries of marginalization in their homeland of Mindanao, an island twice the size of Belgium.

But decades of war have exacted a severe toll on the region's economy. More than half of Muslim households are poor by official estimates.

The region comprises 35.2 percent of Philippine territory but contributes only 18.1 percent of its gross domestic product - and a major portion of that comes from the Christian eastern and northern Mindanao, areas largely removed from the conflict.

Islam took root in the region in the late 14th century, nearly 200 years before the Spanish colonial conquest of the islands.

The MNLF - led by Muslim intellectuals like its chairman Nur Misuari and vice chairman Hashim Salamat - launched a war for secession in the south in 1971.

About 60,000 people were killed in the conflict, which at one time had 60 percent of the Filipino armed forces engaged in combat against well-armed rebels backed by several Muslim states, notably Malaysia and Libya.

The fighting petered out with a ceasefire signed in Tripoli in December 1976, and was replaced by a lowlevel conflict involving ambushes of small military units, raids of Christian villages, extortion, and kidnappings. …