Is the Philippines about to miss its chance at peace?

With a bill aimed at ending a decades-long Muslim separatist insurgency in the southern Philippines floundering in congress, observers warn that failure to pass the legislation could reignite the conflict.

After almost 30 years of fighting, the government signed a peace agreement last year with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which has about 12,000 soldiers. The accord requires the MILF to gradually decommission its army, and it would expand the autonomous Muslim area on the southern island of Mindanao, creating a new political entity called Bangsamoro.

The Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) was drawn up to provide a framework for governance of the region, which is essential for the peace deal. But the BBL has been stalled in congress since 44 police were killed in a 25 January clash with MILF members, which led some legislators who had initially supported the bill to become harsh critics.

Analysts warn that the peace agreement could fall apart if the stalemate continues much longer.

Leaders of the MILF still support the peace process, but the rank and file is losing patience, and they are looking abroad at the tactics of other Islamic insurgencies, according to Ramon Casiple who heads the Institute for Political and Electoral Reform, a Manila-based think tank.

“It is the younger factions that may be waiting in the wings who are in danger of going back to fighting and exposed to other foreign armed groups,” said Casiple.

There is also rising discontent with the peace process on the government side, especially since the battle in January when police commandos strayed into a rebel-held territory while pursuing suspects in the 2002 nightclub bombings in Bali, Indonesia.

Some politicians saw the incident as evidence that the MILF were not committed to peace, and argued that passing the BBL would only embolden the organisation.

“Armed conflict will ensue; blood will be shed,” said senator Ferdinand Marcos Jr., the son of Ferdinand Marcos whose military-backed government was ousted by mass protests in 1986, in a speech on Wednesday.

The younger Marcos argues that the BBL is unconstitutional because it would create “a state within a state”.

The MILF’s chief negotiator, Mohagher Iqbal, has blamed the January clash on police who he said ignored requirements in the peace deal to coordinate with the MILF on any operations in territory under its control.

He urged the government to press ahead with the deal, which he characterised as the last chance for peace after 17 years of negotiation.

“I don’t think the MILF would ever agree – or is capable – to negotiate again for such a long period of time. If we miss this opportunity, I don’t think a similar opportunity will ever present itself again in a generation or two from now,” said Iqbal in an open letter on 19 May.

He said that the younger, “more radical” generation of fighters would be more likely to take up arms again in pursuit of a separate state.

Julkipli Wadi, a political science analyst at the Institute of Islamic Studies in Manila, told IRIN that Iqbal’s warning was a calculated move aimed at pressuring lawmakers to pass the bill. But he added that it was also a valid observation.

Some MILF members have broken away already, forming a group called the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters. They reject the peace deal and have pledged to fight for independence.

As politicians debate the BBL, about 32,200 people remain displaced by January’s violence. They remain in limbo, afraid to return to their houses for fear of renewed fighting.

Civilian victims of the conflict like Kimberly Pascua, 18, are a constant reminder of the consequences of returning to war.

Pascua lost her legs and six family members in a MILF attack five years ago, and she spoke to IRIN at the Davao Jubilee Foundation, which has been helping to rehabilitate her with prosthetic legs with assistance from the International Committee for the Red Cross.

“I hope this time, peace holds and there would be less fighting and less children to be caught in the middle,” she said. “I lost my legs to the conflict, and I wish no more children suffer like me.”

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