Few lessons from Manila

The Philippine government and one of the major Muslim-led rebel groups have agreed to sign a pact next week that could end one of Asia's most murderous conflicts. If successful, the agreement with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) will be a landmark achievement for a government in negotiating peace with a group holding such strong terrorist relations.

"If" is the potential stumbling block, because this is only the latest such deal between Manila and the southern Moros. But a major question is whether there is anything in the Philippine deal that can help Thailand.

The least obvious lesson for this country is the two-part process that allows President Benigno Aquino III to grab the glory of next Monday's signing ceremony. First came a commitment by a string of Philippine leaders to strive for a negotiated settlement. Without the serial and non-partisan decisions by presidents Estrada, Arroyo and Aquino, there would be no deal with the MILF.

For Thailand to adopt even this obvious lesson from the Philippine peace model would require a revolution in thinking in Bangkok. Both the Democrat and Pheu Thai Party leaders would have to agree to seek talks with southern militants. They would have to quash objections from the military and other security forces with heavy stakes in the deep South.

The second least obvious lesson from the Philippines' advance is the use of a go-between. The Philippines accepted the offer of the Malaysian government. Negotiations were held in Kuala Lumpur. For security and diplomatic relations, they were routinely kept secret from the people of the Philippines. It is unlikely that the establishment or voters would accept Malaysia as an honest broker in the Thai South. That raises the question, if not Malaysia, who?

Other problems in using the Manila model are more obvious and at least as troublesome. The MILF is a highly organised group with a political arm. It is led by Al-Haj Murad Ebrahim. Thailand's counterpart is a shadowy group with no name or known leader. Compared with the Philippines, Thailand would have to open peace talks with ghosts. It must also be remembered that, up to now, the negotiated settlements of the Philippines have all failed. The MILF was formed and expanded by men who rejected a previous peace pact, also celebrated on front pages around the world. The previous settlement, with the "moderate" Muslim group known as the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) collapsed over disagreements about just how much autonomy the southern regions were to have. The deep South is violent, but the extremists have no links with foreign terrorists. They do, however, have some sort of affinity with Malaysia. That was obvious in the stunt last month to raise Malaysian flags around the region.

Thailand for now must wish the Philippines well in its new attempt to find peace in its southern region. There seems little, if indeed anything, that can be borrowed from the Manila model and brought to Thailand. There is no magic button to press to bring peace to the deep South. It will come by pursuing talks, instituting justice, presenting limited autonomy and assuring economic opportunity. But it will be a unique peace, generated within Thailand.