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Philippine Muslim rebels struggle amid unfulfilled promises


Carmen (Philippines) : Since the age of 15 Muslim rebel Datumanong Lumanggal has fought countless battles against government troops in the southern Philippines to defend his peoples' rights and identity.

Through the years, Lumanggal said he saw numerous friends and relatives killed in clashes with soldiers on the hills of Carmen town in North Cotabato province, 960 km south of Manila.

Now the 54-year-old father of three grown-up children is waging a different kind of battle aimed at uplifting the lives of men who fought with him as commander of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), which used to be the largest Muslim separatist rebel group in the southern Philippines.

Lumanggal and his wife are leading a group of close to 300 MNLF fighters turn the battlefields of Carmen into a bountiful field of mango, banana and corn plantations in the village of Kitulaan.

"We lost money in our first mango harvest but our bananas and corn are doing well," Lumanggal said.

"But through the help of GEM (Growth with Equity in Mindanao) technicians, we hope to improve our mango harvest and make a profit during the next fruiting season," he added.

Lumanggal and his men are among 28,000 of an estimated 70,000 MNLF combatants who have received financial and technical support from the US-funded GEM programme aimed at helping them reintegrate into the mainstream of society.

The GEM programme was started after the MNLF signed a peace agreement with the Philippine government in September 1996, raising hopes of development in the southern region of Mindanao, where decades of strife has hampered economic and social growth.

Aside from livelihood projects, the GEM programme also built basic infrastructure as farm-to-market roads and bridges in communities, affected by the conflict in Mindanao.

While Lumanggal said he was thankful for the assistance from GEM, he was worried of the larger number of MNLF fighters who have yet to reap the benefits of the 1996 peace pact.

"The help is not enough," he said. "A lot of MNLF fighters are still waiting for help. Some of them are getting desperate. I hope their plight could be addressed soon or else trouble might start again."

In the mountains in nearby Shariff Kabunsuan province, more than 200 MNLF fighters gathered in a show of force to a group of journalists.

Commander Magid Bantu said his group of more than 1,000 fighters continues regular military training, but was not engaged in recruitment activities since it is not allowed under the peace agreement.

Bantu pointed to thatched houses in various degrees of decay, the unpaved dusty feeder road and the dilapidated school building, as proof of the continued poverty among the country's Muslim minority.

"Nothing has changed," he said. "We are still living in poverty and government services are few and far between. We are tired of fighting but how else can we be heard. Our options are very limited."

Bantu, 56, expressed serious concern that the continued neglect would force MNLF fighters to go back to the hills and renew their armed struggle.

The Philippine government has admitted that lack of funds has hampered the implementation of the agreement with the MNLF, but stressed that it was doing everything to help spur development in Mindanao.

Presidential spokesman Ignacio Bunye said President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo has in fact placed the implementation of the 1996 peace agreement with the MNLF on the top of her administration's agenda.

"Maybe the government thinks that we are already past our prime as fighters," he said. "But it has to remember that a new generation of disillusioned young Muslims are growing and they would not hesitate to continue our struggle, even if it means going back to the hills."