Muslim unrest in Philippines may spread to neighbours
With peace talks between the Philippine government and Muslim rebels in tatters, analysts are warning violence will escalate and could spill over into neighbouring countries.
President Gloria Arroyo this week scrapped the government panel handling the negotiations, a move analysts say ended any hopes of settling the four-decades-old Muslim insurgency before she leaves office in 2010.
They fear the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which had been negotiating for a Muslim homeland on the revolt-hit southern Mindanao island, may now splinter into smaller and more radical groups.
The government has said any future peace talks will have to be more representative of the people of Mindanao rather than just the MILF, which will have to disarm if it is to enter any future negotiations.
"No respected revolutionary movement will even think of handing over their guns," said Rommel Banlaoi, executive director of the Philippine Institute for Political Violence and Terrorism Research, a think tank.
He said the dissolution of the peace panel would lead the MILF rebel forces to resume their armed struggle on a larger scale, and warned the conflict could "spill over to neighbouring countries like Indonesia, Malaysia or Brunei."
There have been fears MILF splinter groups could align themselves with regional terrorist networks such as Indonesia's Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), which has already infiltrated the southern Philippines
One Filipino government security analyst who did not want to be named said Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei had expressed fears the MILF renegades could slip into their territories with the help of the JI's vast network.
He said there were already reports of some unnamed armed groups trying to enter Malaysia's Sabah state.
"You can expect more attacks, not only in the Philippines but elsewhere in the region" once the JI cements its ties with the MILF, the official added.
Julkipli Wadi, an Islamic studies professor at the University of the Philippines and an expert on the Mindanao conflict, said government attempts to engage the MILF in talks to disarm would be "a shot at the moon."
"It will not work," he said. "They will never surrender their firearms. They will now disperse and engage in intensified hit-and-run guerrilla warfare."
"That will be more difficult since there will be no direct command structure that can be held accountable which government can deal with directly."
Arroyo's decision to disband the peace panel came as the military mounted a huge offensive against the forces of Umbra Kato and Abdurahman Macapaar, also known as Commander Bravo, two senior MILF members.
The strikes, in retaliation for a series of deadly raids across Christian towns and villages this month, have killed more than 100 rebels in the past three weeks.
Nearly half a million people have been displaced by the fighting, the biggest flare-up of violence since the MILF signed a ceasefire with the government in 2003.
The two commanders have said they launched the attacks after a court froze a government agreement with the MILF giving the rebels control over an autonomous region.
Now on the run, Kato and Bravo and their men could seek help from JI militants who are keen to establish a stronger presence on Mindanao, analysts said.
A report by the International Crisis Group early this year said Kato's ties to the JI and other terrorist groups were "well documented."
Teresita Deles, a former adviser on peace talks to Arroyo and now a security consultant, accused the government of "playing to the galleries" at the expense of peace in Mindanao.
"They know there is going to be some support for some strong action" against Kato and Bravo, Deles said, adding the public no longer trusts the government to secure a peace agreement.