Top photo shows MILF rebels gather in a plenum in 2004 in Mindanao and rebel chieftain Murad Ebrahim with US Ambassador Kristie Kenney during their meeting February 2008 in Sultan Kudarat province. (Mindanao Examiner Photo/Mark Navales)
COTABATO CITY, Philippines (Mindanao Examiner / Mar. 06, 2008) – Thousands of Moro Islamic Liberation Front rebels are expected to gather in the southern Philippines to discuss the slow progress of the peace talks with Manila.
The MILF previously appealed to rebels and supporters for patience as the talks stalled over demands for a separate Muslim homeland in the strife-torn, but mineral-rich region of Mindanao. “We will discuss many things, especially the stalled peace talks, and consult with our members,” Mohagher Iqbal, chief MILF peace negotiator, said.
In 2004, the MILF also held a plenum in Sultan Kudarat province drawing close to about three million Muslims demanding independence in Mindanao.
The MILF, the country’s largest Muslim rebel group, accused Manila of reneging to its commitment after peace talks failed in September in Malaysia, which is brokering the negotiations. Iqbal described the gathering, which will begin over the weekend, as a “rare opportunity to let the Muslims know the progress in the seven-year old peace talks.”
Last month, US Ambassador Kristie Kenney met with the secluded MILF chieftain Murad Ebrahim and discussed the peace process in Mindanao. The US had in the past offered as much as $30 million to fund development projects in Muslim areas in the southern region should the MILF signed a peace deal with Manila that will put an end to more than four decades of hostilities in Mindanao.
Iqbal said the Philippine peace panel last year agreed on the scope of the Muslim ancestral domain, but later reneged on the accord that will constitute a separate homeland for over 4 million Muslims and indigenous tribes in Mindanao. ”This ugly turn of event in the peace process is taxing the patience of the MILF and the Bangsamoro people, who may be compelled to resort to other means, pacific or otherwise, of resolving the Mindanao conflict when they are pushed to the wall and become hopeless in the present peace process,” Iqbal said.The MILF said government negotiators headed by Rodolfo Garcia completely disregarded the agreement on the ancestral domain and insisted again that the granting of homeland to Muslims in Mindanao would solely be through Constitutional process which the rebel group previously opposed. But the Philippine Constitution prohibits the dismembering of the country.
“This stance of the GRP peace panel has virtually jeopardized the integrity of the peace process and to continue with the talks would virtually turn it into a circus,” Iqbal said.
The ancestral domain which 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 and the Sulu Archipelago.
President Gloria Arroyo opened up peace talks with the MILF in 2001. The prospect of resuming the stalled peace talks remains unknown and this is further aggravated by anti-Arroyo protests and street rallies over accusations of corruptions and scandals in the government.
Peace talks had been stalled after both sides failed to agree on the scope of the ancestral domain, which is the single most important issue in the peace negotiations before the rebel group can reach a political settlement.
Mohammad Ameen, a senior rebel leader, previously said the MILF will only sign a peace deal with Arroyo government if it establishes genuine governance for Muslims either in the form of “state” or “sub-state”.
The MILF earlier warned that hostilities may erupt in Mindanao if the peace talks fail or if Malaysia pulls out its truce observers from the International Monitoring Team in Mindanao, whose 16 million populations included four million Muslims. The IMT is composed of 41 officers from the Malaysian Defense Forces, the Royal Malaysia Police, and the Prime Minister’s Department and is also supported by 10 military officers from Brunei Darussalam and 5 from Libya. Japan also has a member in the IMT.
But analysts fear that Arroyo or her allies in the House of Representatives might use the peace talks with the MILF as an excuse to amend the Constitution to change the system of government from presidential to parliamentary or federalism to allow the MILF to have a separate state and eventually prolong her into power beyond 2010.
Under the presidential form of government, Arroyo, who deposed President Joseph Estrada in a people power revolution in 2001, is allowed only one six-year term. In the charter change proposal suggested by her political allies who dominate Congress, she can be elected as prime minister should Congress dissolve the Senate and change the system of government to parliamentary. (With a report from Mark Navales and Merlyn Manos)