TROOP skirmishes and small bombings will likely increase in the southern Philippines in the coming weeks as the government and separatists flex their muscles after the latest setback in a stop-start peace process.
Both sides have been saber-rattling. Manila has issued an ultimatum to the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) over what it says is their occupation of Catholic farming villages.
The rebels, meanwhile, have admitted that some commanders may lash out amid frustration over a Supreme Court ruling that temporarily halted a longed-for deal on territory.
While violence is likely, analysts do not expect it to spill into an all-out conflict due to a lack of resources and war-weariness on both side.
Instead, it is viewed as a means of boosting bargaining positions before a return, yet again, to negotiations.
“I think it sounds worse than it really is,” said Scott Harrison, managing director of risk consultancy Pacific Strategies and Assessments.
“It’s leverage to bring them back to the peace table.”
“Neither side has the wherewithal to do a knockout punch.”
Both sides need to do some face-saving. The government of the largely Catholic country wants to reassure majority Christians in the south after they cried treason when details of the territorial deal were released.
The MILF, meanwhile, is smarting from the latest setback after more than a decade of talks and thousands of deaths.
Legal experts say the Supreme Court could judge the deal unconstitutional in the next few months and order the government and the rebels back to the drawing board.
Some analysts in the Philippines argue this legal obstacle was factored in by President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who lacks political will to transfer real power to the southern region of Mindanao.
During her term, which runs out in mid-2010, the outlook for a comprehensive peace deal looks bleak.
“They know that the Supreme Court will overrule the whole thing,” said Benito Lim, a professor of political science at the University of the Philippines. “But if the government will not yield to the demands of the Muslims there will be no peace in Mindanao.”
The territorial agreement offered major concessions to the MILF on land rights and mineral wealth, including oil and gas, at a time of soaring commodity prices.
The deal’s generous provisions and the final draft’s hasty conclusion the night before Arroyo’s annual state address have led many to dismiss it as political window-dressing.
That Hermogenes Esperon, the former head of the armed forces lately turned presidential peace adviser, would sign such an agreement also raised eyebrows.
“When the hard-line general is conceding everything you must suspect something is wrong somewhere or a script has already been written,” Lim said.
The next few months and even years will likely be a repetition of before; stop-start talks among officials, sporadic violent skirmishes and grinding poverty in the most resource-rich region in the country.
The territorial deal was dependent on Manila and the rebels agreeing a final comprehensive agreement to end a near 40-year conflict that has killed over 120,000 people.
An eventual peace deal would unleash up to $100 million in development projects from international donors, giving a major boost to the Philippines’ poorest region, where average annual income was just 89,000 pesos ($2,026) in 2006, less than a third of the level in Manila.
But even before the Supreme Court stepped in this week there were a plethora of hurdles to a permanent agreement.
One of the biggest obstacles was Arroyo.
Already a survivor of three failed impeachment bids and three botched coups, most of the former economist’s energies are focused on staying in power and she has expended little effort to move the peace process forward beyond mentioning it in speeches. By contrast, former president Fidel Ramos was more hands-on in the lead up to a 1996 deal with another Muslim rebel group.
In order to get an agreement implemented, Arroyo would need Congress to approve enabling laws and a constitutional change would likely be required – a tall order for the most unpopular president since former dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
So distrusted is Arroyo due to allegations of vote fraud that any hint of constitutional change prompts speculation that she wants to tinker with the charter to extend her term.
A historic deal with the MILF would require a mass of support among the military, Congress, economic elites and the public.
“The leadership now is not really credible, there is a problem with the messenger,” said Amado Valdez, dean of the law school at Manila’s University of the East.
The agreement on territory was far from perfect.
It gave a future Muslim government the right to cancel existing mineral contracts, which would likely turnoff much-needed foreign investment.
It provided for the expansion of an existing six-province autonomous region but in a scatter-gun manner that would result in small pockets of Muslim-ruled areas surrounded by Christian-dominated populations, making it difficult to govern.
And the whole deal was agreed without consultation with other affected communities prompting panic in some quarters and fears of communal violence. “One thing that makes it a doubtful agreement is that there was not much transparency,” said Valdez. “That alone gives people doubts and suspicions about the agenda.” – Reuters