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Paris, Friday, May 12, 2000

Good and Bad Diplomacy for Southeast Asian Trouble Spots

By Philip Bowring International Herald Tribune.
HONG KONG - Good and bad diplomacy have both been on display this week over two intractable Southeast Asian separatist conflicts, involving Aceh in Indonesia and Muslim Mindanao and Sulu in the southern Philippines.

After weeks of quiet diplomacy, the contending sides in Aceh are on the point of a signing in Geneva this Friday of a memorandum of understanding for a cease-fire that will provide a breathing space for a negotiated political settlement.

Meanwhile, EU envoy Javier Solana has rushed to the Philippines, giving the impression that the conflict there is suddenly important because some European citizens are at risk. Concern for their safety is natural, but Mr. Solana has been in Manila to dissuade the Philippine military from acting as NATO, of which he was then secretary-general, did in the Kosovo conflict - risking innocent civilian lives to resist terrorist blackmail and achieve legitimate political goals.

It is all very well now for the Europeans to suggest that what is needed in the southern Philippines is outside intermediation. Europe had hitherto taken scant interest in a conflict which has been going on for more than a quarter century, has probably claimed more than quarter of a million lives and has long been noted for kidnapping, smuggling and general banditry as well as for the political aspirations of the Muslim majority areas.

This sudden European concern looks suspiciously self-centered and has played into the hands of those using terror rather than military means to achieve their ends.

The European reaction to the kidnapping of tourists from the Malaysian island of Sipadan to the Philippines has given the Abu Sayyaf group hitherto undreamed of attention. This is the smallest, most violent, least representative group fighting for a separate Muslim state.

Even the group's Islamic credentials are suspect. Many observers view it as being based on tribal more than on religious loyalties, and more interested in plunder and ransom money than in political goals.

The situation in Muslim Mindanao/Sulu is complex and confused, as evidenced by the presence of the former chief rebel Nur Misuari on the government side. A framework for autonomy has existed since the Tripoli agreement of 1976 and has been a reality since 1996, when President Fidel Ramos made a deal with Nur Misuari.

The writ of the Manila-supported, democratically elected autonomous region's government runs through most of the region. The main holdout is not the Abu Sayyaf gang but the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which controls some territory. On-again off-again peace talks with the MILF were in progress before this kidnapping. The European response has raised the Abu Sayyaf profile without doing anything for peace.

The region is actually a lot more peaceful than it was a decade or two ago. But complete peace will come only when there is sufficient combined effort with neighbors Malaysia and Indonesia to choke off arms and suppress piracy, and when Manila has sufficient resources to make economic development an attractive option.

Neither condition is impossible. The Philippines and Malaysia are both again bearing the costs of past interference in each other's affairs - Manila with its 1960s claim to Sabah,to which Malaysia responded with money and sympathy for Muslim rebels.

Aceh could now be an example of how regional solidarity can help blunt separatist dreams. The cease-fire expected to be signed soon is only a start. But the lack of any external sympathy is one reason why the rebel Free Aceh Movement has been willing to talk

Other reasons include divisions within the Acehnese camp and the willingness of many to settle for autonomy, and partial control of their natural resources, if it also brings peace and security.

Meanwhile President Abdurrahman Wahid, who has taken personal charge of the Aceh problem, is under pressure to show that a political settlement is possible without undermining Indonesia's cohesion, and to demonstrate that democracy can help the process. It clearly did so in the Philippines. Mindanao/Sulu is still a violent and troubled region, but it is much less so than it was during the Marcos era.

The cease-fire agreement would not become effective for three weeks and would last for only three months.

There are many negotiating miles to go before permanent peace comes to Aceh. But it would be testimony to the value of behind-the-scenes, passive intermediation, in this case by the Geneva-based Center for Humanitarian Dialogue rather than by foreign governments with their partial and self-centered agendas - such as that of the European Union as demonstrated by Mr. Solana.