Philippine President Benigno Aquino III is trying to satisfy the demands of the army seeking tougher action against Muslim rebels, while leaving open the possibility of a peace deal and sparking all too familiar rumors of a coup in the making.
Aquino this week ordered a crackdown on a rogue “criminal” faction of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in the south of the mainly Roman Catholic country after the killing of 30 soldiers, while rejecting calls to abandon the stalled peace process.
Frustration with the ceasefire within the army has raised rumors of a coup plot. Aquino’s mother, Corazon, faced more than half a dozen coup attempts between 1986 and 1992 as democracy was restored, scaring potential investors and slowing growth.
Even in the absence of a coup, any further clashes could see the chances of securing peace with the MILF slip away completely.
Manila has been negotiating with the group since 1997 to end decades of a conflict that has killed 120,000 people, displaced 2 million and hobbled growth in poor, but resource-rich Muslim areas in the south.
“The president’s problem is how to preserve the peace process, but at the same time appease the army,” said Ramon Casiple, head of the Institute for Political and Electoral Reforms.
The military bombed rebels from both the main MILF force and the rogue faction on the island of Mindanao this week in response to the killing of the 30 soldiers in clashes last week. About 20,000 civilians were displaced.
Both sides accused each other of breaking the ceasefire and some of Aquino’s closest allies, including Philippine Vice President Jejomar Binay, have joined calls for a review of the agreement.
Apparent coup plots and rumors of coup plots spread via text message after Aquino’s allies and a spokesman for the president confirmed the existence of groups agitating soldiers and attempting to sow confusion.
One text message urged “brave and national young officers to arrest Aquino and some generals for betraying the constitution through peace talks with the MILF” and proposed a junta to protect the country’s territorial integrity.
The military, as it has before genuine coups in the past, said the rumors were baseless.
Aquino came to power in May last year with a record-high margin of votes, although his popularity rating has slipped from a peak of 60 percent after his election, but it remains high at about 50 percent.
Peace advocates are worried Aquino might abandon his peace efforts. They fear a repeat of the 2008 conflict which displaced nearly 750,000 people for about a year.
The interfaith human rights group Moro-Christian People’s Alliance warned of a humanitarian crisis if the army offensive escalated.
“President Aquino’s all-out justice operations have all the characteristics of an all-out war,” alliance spokesman Antonio Liongson said.
The US, the EU and Australia, which have contributed huge sums of development funds to rebuild conflict areas, called for the immediate resumption of talks. So did Japan and Britain, which are observing the peace talks.
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