A Peacemaker on Mindanao
For decades, an Islamic rebellion has simmered fitfully on Mindanao, the second largest island in the Philippines. In 1996 the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), a secular guerrilla movement, laid down its arms after the government in Manila agreed to a semi-autonomous Muslim region in central Mindanao. But the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), a more militant group with about 13,000 armed members, says it wants an independent Islamic state, and has clashed frequently with government troops in recent months. Peace talks have begun, but there have been numerous ceasefire violations on both sides. As head of the Quick Response Team, an independent group that helps resolve ceasefire disputes, Eliseo Mercado plays a key role in efforts to end the conflict. A distinguished academic (he is president of Notre Dame University in Cotabato City), he is something of a rarity--a Catholic priest in the Philippines who is also an accomplished student of Islam: he holds a degree from Cairo's Oriental Institute. He talked with NEWSWEEK's Marites D. Vitug in Davao, on Mindanao. Excerpts:
VITUG: Why is peace so elusive in Muslim Mindanao?
MERCADO: People still expect peace dividends which aren't there. The peace accord signed with the Moro National Liberation Front will be three years old in September. But people still have to see results like work opportunities, basic services. The other very important factor is that settlement does not mean surrender. It must be a negotiated peace, with dignity. Change must not only come from the rebels. There should be movement on the part of the government too.
Have government negotiators learned from this experience?
This is going to be a real test with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. Their slant is strictly Islamic, while the government's is secular. It cannot be a one-way road. There should be equal adjustment on the part of the Philippine government to [accommodate] this [minority faith] within the [Philippine] nation. Unless this is done, peace will remain elusive.
In the more than two decades of Muslim rebellion, is Islam a big factor? Or is it more of an economic war?
Definitely, economic deprivation plus exclusion of the Muslim population from politics make a fertile ground for rebellion. The failure of the Philippine government to deliver economic benefits, and the failure of Muslim leaders educated in the secular world to improve the lives of their people--these two failures made Muslims cling to Islam. So Islam is the answer. …