MILF Rebels Assail Delay In Philippine Peace Talks

August 21, 2007 at 4:23 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

MAGUINDANAO, Philippines (Mindanao Examiner / 21 Aug) – Philippine Muslim rebels on Tuesday assailed the Arroyo government for delaying peace talks aimed at ending more than 30 years of bloody insurgency in the strife-torn region of Mindanao.

The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) said Manila canceled Wednesday’s peace talks in Malaysia and the last minute decision caught rebel leaders by surprise.

“We are really caught unaware by the government’s decision to cancel the peace talks. The problem now is not with the MILF, not even Malaysia but the Philippine government,” Mohagher Iqbal, the chief MILF peace negotiator, told the Mindanao Examiner.

It was the second time the peace talks have been canceled by the Filipino government. It also postponed a scheduled peace talks in May because of national elections.

Malaysia is brokering the peace talks, but negotiations ended last year in Kuala Lumpur with no concrete agreement. Both sides failed to agree on the most contentious issue — ancestral domain.

Ancestral domain refers to the rebel demand for territory that will constitute a Muslim homeland. It is the single most important issue in the peace negotiations before the rebel group can reach a political settlement.

Iqbal said the Manila apparently did not submit its guidelines for the resumption of the peace talks that led to its cancellation. He said there is a need to resume the peace talks and tackle the issue on ancestral domain.

The ancestral domain covers the whole of Muslim autonomous region and other areas in Zamboanga del Norte, Zamboanga del Sur, Zamboanga Sibugay, North Cotabato, Sultan Kudarat and Sarangani provinces where there are large communities of Muslims and indigenous tribes. And even Palawan Island in central Philippines.

Government peace negotiators previously offered the MILF the Muslim autonomous region, which is composed of Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao, Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi which are among the poorest in the country torn by strife and clan wars since its creation in 1989.

The MILF rejected the offer, saying, it would not settle for anything less than total Muslim control over those areas. “Our position remains,” Iqbal said.

The Organization of Islamic Conference, which is supporting the peace talks, also sent dozens of truce observers to Mindanao.

The group is composed of soldiers and policemen from Brunei, Libya and Malaysia. Japan also sent a representative to join the truce observers, but Iqbal said their stay would end next month unless peace negotiators renewed an accord that would allow them another year.

“We want to resolve the problems affecting Mindanao peacefully and this can only be achieved through the peace process, but if the Philippine government decides to pull out from the peace negotiation, then we will have to evaluate the situation and adapt measures relative to the MILF as a revolutionary organization,” Iqbal said.

Peace talks between the government and MILF started in January 1997, but the absence of a neutral third party bogged down the initiative.

President Gloria Arroyo opened up peace talks with the MILF in 2001 and signed a cease-fire agreement, but despite the truce fighting still continues with the two sides accusing each other of breaking the accord.

However, in February 2003, despite the avowed all-peace policy of President Gloria Arroyo, an all-out war was again declared against the rebels, but both sides later agreed to resume talks.

President George Bush said the United States is willing to pour more development aid in Mindanao should the MILF signed a peace deal with Manila, a key U.S. ally in the global war on terrorism. The MILF also praised Bush for his commitment to Mindanao.

But in March, fighting between security and rebel forces erupted in central Mindanao, killing dozens of people from both sides and sending tens of thousands of civilian fleeing their homes. The MILF said the fighting had nearly disrupted the peace talks.

Manila also implicated the MILF in the beheading of ten of 14 soldiers killed in fierce fighting in Basilan island last month. And the military and police linked the MILF to terrorism, an accusation rebel leaders strongly denied.

Arroyo said economic development remains her administration’s principal weapon in the fight against terrorism and the pursuit of peace and progress in Mindanao, particularly Basilan and Sulu.

“Economic development, which we draw from the arsenal of democracy, remains our principal weapon against terrorism,” she said.

Television network GMA reported Tuesday that Arroyo said peace talks with MILF rebels would resume next month. The announcement was made before the start of the National Security Council meeting in Manila, it said.

The MILF broke away in 1978 with the larger Moro National Liberation Front which signed a peace accord with Manila in 1996. (Mindanao Examiner)

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