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FEATURE-Philippine Muslim Mindanao left hungry for self-rule - Reuters

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  • Zafar Khan
    FEATURE-Philippine Muslim Mindanao left hungry for self-rule 14 Oct 2004 01:35:46 GMT Source: Reuters By Stuart Grudgings
    Message 1 of 1 , Oct 14, 2004
      FEATURE-Philippine Muslim Mindanao left hungry for
      14 Oct 2004 01:35:46 GMT
      Source: Reuters
      By Stuart Grudgings


      COTABATO CITY, Philippines, Oct 14 (Reuters) - For 15
      years, Hadja Bainon Karon fought in the southern
      Philippine jungle for a Muslim homeland, losing five
      brothers and a husband in the conflict.

      Now she sits at a desk under a portrait of a smiling
      President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and wonders if she
      should have ever come out.

      "I really cried," said Bainon Karon, now the social
      welfare secretary for the Autonomous Region in Muslim
      Mindanao (ARMM), recalling her decision to give up the
      armed struggle.

      "I knew that when you are in politics, your image will
      be destroyed, will be very negative."

      Her tears proved prophetic for the ARMM, born out of a
      1996 peace agreement with the government that failed
      to stop the fighting or produce real autonomy for
      Mindanao island's 5 million Muslims.

      Eight years after it was created, covering four
      provinces, ARMM's credibility has been shattered by
      its inability to change the region's status as the
      country's poorest place despite millions of dollars
      poured in by foreign aid donors.

      Poverty incidence is twice as high as in the rest of
      the Philippines; people's lives on average 10 years

      ARMM officials, most of them former fighters with the
      Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), blame Manila
      for not fully implementing the peace deal and starving
      it of funds. Corruption in its ranks, especially in
      its first few years, is also to blame.


      Whoever's fault it is, "autonomy" has become a dirty
      word in the region's mosques.

      "They are not Muslims," said Cotabato City resident
      Yusuf Pajiji after Friday prayers, gesturing towards
      nearby ARMM buildings.

      "If you are corrupt, you are not a Muslim."

      That kind of anger has helped sustain the Moro Islamic
      Liberation Front (MILF), whose 12,000 fighters kept up
      the fight after 1996.

      Their suspected links with foreign militants are
      shrugged off by Pajiji and others gathered outside the
      mosque as just another example of the Philippine
      government and military trying to stir up trouble.

      But with a 15-month-old ceasefire holding and the MILF
      set to resume formal peace talks with the government
      after a three-year break, Muslims are daring to think
      of a better future.

      "The MILF has been studying everything that went wrong
      with the MNLF -- they were never actually ready for
      government," said one local development official.

      Still, finding a new solution that does not upset
      Mindanao's delicate ethnic, religious and tribal
      balance won't be easy.

      No one is quite sure how strictly the MILF, some of
      whose members fought side-by-side with radical Arab
      fighters in Afghanistan in the 1980s, would seek to
      impose Islamic laws and customs.


      Jamael Romampat, the mosque's imam, said he thought
      about 20 percent of Cotabato City's Christian
      population would leave if it came under the control of
      a new Muslim authority.

      The city, about evenly split between Muslims and
      Christians, was left out of the ARMM but is seen by
      the MILF as an integral part of a Muslim homeland in
      the mostly Roman Catholic Philippines.

      That does not go down well with some Christians, who
      have been settling in Mindanao since Spanish colonial
      times several centuries ago and see the island as
      their home.

      "I grew up here and could see even when young that
      there is no development in any Muslim area," said
      Luis, a Christian who works as a driver.

      "It would be a problem. We are going to arm

      Others see little chance of religious tension in a
      city where the sound of church bells mingles easily
      with muezzins' calls to prayer.

      "I wouldn't say it's going to be strict but it's going
      to be correct," said Abas Candao, head of the
      Bangsamoro Development Agency, set up by the MILF to
      work on development projects.

      "It's going to be something that even Christians will
      be comfortable living in."

      The MILF also needs to tread carefully to ensure the
      MNLF does not feel left out in the cold by a new peace

      The MNLF may have joined politics, but it kept its

      Listening to an increasingly passionate Bainon Karon
      reel off a list of ARMM problems -- underfunding,
      double-dealing by donors and national ministries, lack
      of decision-making ability -- it is not hard to
      imagine her returning to war.

      The slightly-built woman, 52, once took a bullet in
      the leg during a battle with the military.

      For now, though, she remains patient.

      "They say the ARMM is created to fail," she said. "But
      for us, we are hoping that later on the national
      government would fulfil their promises, because we are
      not happy with what is going on now."

      More about Muslims and Islam in Philippines at:

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