Rebels embrace aid-driven peace bid
Japan's investment in Mindanao is credited with helping to prevent a full-scale war
As tit-for-tat clashes with Muslim rebels flare up in Mindanao, the anxious residents and the government in Manila are not the only ones watching nervously.
Japan is quietly investing millions of dollars in the region, part of projects which are credited with helping to stave off a full-blown guerilla war. Over the weekend, presidential spokesman Ignacio Bunye cited the positive role that 'allies in the international community [have played] for actively participating in helping preserve peace in Mindanao'.
The situation is fragile - one soldier and 17 Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) members have died in the last two weeks, along with two civilians - but there is rare co-operation from both sides in pushing forward with foreign aid projects.
The region of Matanog in Maguindanao province was the scene of some of the heaviest fighting between rebels and soldiers in 2000. But today, residents of Matanog's Sapad village busy themselves with constructing 13 coconut-meat dryers, paid for by Japan, which are aimed at increasing local income.
The scheme is part of Japan's aid-driven peace effort, which is being employed in five other villages, at a total cost of US$624,000.
With the backing of both Tokyo and the Philippine government, the MILF's Bangsamoro Development Agency chose Sapad as one of the project sites with a goal of 'supporting the peace process', said agency head Abbas Candao.
'Give people a livelihood - make them think peace and talk peace, not war,' Dr Candao said.
The plan seems to be working. Sapad has been untouched by recent conflicts.
Japan is aware that a war could wreck its projects and investments. But instead of waiting for a peace deal, it is spending the money now because it believes the projects will help end the conflict.
'The traditional thinking is that before an agreement, maybe [give] only humanitarian assistance. And after the agreement, everybody goes rushing to the area for development activities,' said Shozo Matsuura, a spokesman for the Japan International Co-operation Agency (JICA), which is behind the scheme.
Japan decided to get involved now, he said, because the Mindanao conflict has long been 'a constraint' on the overall Philippine economy.
He explained that Japan, through the JICA, was trying a new, 'community driven' development approach.
Rebel leaders agreed to co-operate fully after JICA head Sadako Ogata met them last September.
What won the rebels over was Japan's pledge to spend US$3 million on an assessment of their needs that will later serve as the basis for future aid plans. The first step was to select JICA-trained villagers to choose priority projects.
Dr Candao said the rebel leaders supported the approach 'because you have to prepare the people first. Otherwise, if you at once ask them what they need and you do not prepare them, they won't really know what's good for them'. Projects included the construction of a small madrassa, or Islamic school, and a new road.
Japan used a similar approach more than 20 years ago in war-torn Cambodia and more recently in Afghanistan, Mr Matsuura said. But in both instances, Japan went in only after peace was restored.
Dr Candao said the rebels welcomed Japan's involvement because it lent its expertise 'without external interference'.
One source in the project said the United States also had proposed funding similar projects in rebel-held areas, but rebel leaders had rejected the US offer.
'They wanted to direct dial aid to our people, bypassing the MILF, and that would have undermined our organisation,' the source said.
An international relations expert, who did not want to be named, said Japan's altruism was 'naturally mixed with self-interest'.
'The rebel-controlled areas of Mindanao are blessed with marine resources, minerals and possibly oil and gas deposits, which Japan would be keen to tap,' he said.
Rebel spokesman Eid Kabalu said 'of course' the MILF would look kindly at countries which had helped them in their hour of need.