U.S. officials will take part in upcoming peace talks between Manila and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). Washington's military might and deep pockets could help facilitate a deal between the Philippine government and the rebels.
The U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines, Francis Ricciardone, said June 27 that the United States will actively participate in peace talks between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). Manila is targeting July 1 to resume negotiations with the rebels, but no date has been formally agreed. The U.S.-funded Institute for Peace (USIP) — a quasi-governmental agency staffed by former-high level U.S. government officials — will be Washington's main liaison during negotiations, which are expected to take place in Malaysia. USIP's official role will be to provide financial and diplomatic support to the negotiations, but its presence also will serve as a reminder that President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo's government not only has strong financial support from Washington, but robust military backing as well. That reminder could be a further incentive for MILF guerrillas to cut a peace deal. In an interview with the Manila Times, Ricciardone said that USIP's role will be to "bear witness" to the talks and help build confidence between the two parties. And, addressing a major point of friction for the rebels, the organization will funnel funds into the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) in efforts to foster peace and development. MILF frequently complains that the ARMM — the autonomous region established by a 1996 peace accord and expanded through a Mindanao-wide plebiscite in 2001 — is under-funded and under-developed by the government. During Arroyo's May 19 visit to Washington, U.S. leaders pledged $30 million in new bilateral development assistance for Mindanao and support for the peace process with the MILF, contingent on the rebels' behavior. Mindanao is home to some of the Philippines' poorest provinces, and a peace-for-investment deal might be appealing to some of the rebel commanders. But even without financial incentives, Manila can use its military ties to the world's only superpower as leverage during the peace talks. In addition to the $30 million pledge, Arroyo left Washington wtih further aid and military support — including promises for continued military training, helicopters and spare parts. U.S. President George W. Bush also pledged to grant the Philippines "Major Non-NATO Ally" status — thus raising the country to the same level as other key Asian allies, including Australia, South Korea and Japan. Through USIP, Washington will raise the stakes at the peace talks. For the MILF, it will be difficult to discount the notion that if Washington views the group as intransigent or unreasonable, Manila soon might see a sharp increase in military assistance — and the MILF might feel its sting.