Peace Talks Top Agenda In MILF Meet; Army Protests Presence Of Huge Armed Rebels In Mindanao

March 10, 2008 at 4:25 pm | Posted in 1 | Leave a comment

Moro Islamic Liberation Front rebels on their way to a meeting in Lanao del Sur province in southern Philippines. Muslims on Monday, March 10, 2008, say they are supporting the MILF demand for a separate homeland in Mindanao. (Mindanao Examiner Photo/Mark Navales)

LANAO DEL SUR, Philippines (Mindanao Examiner / Mar. 10, 2008) – Tens of thousands of Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) rebels gathered on a remote Philippine town, discussing the slow progress and the danger of a possible collapse of the peace talks with Manila.

The Philippine military accused the MILF of violating the truce after rebel forces arrived in convoys of trucks and jeeps, armed with high-power weapons, in Lanao del Sur province.
“We have filed a protest with the government cease-fire committee. The rebels cannot bring their weapons or display them publicly,” Maj. Gen. Nehemias Pajarito, commander of the Army’s 1st Infantry Division, told the Mindanao Examiner.
Pajarito said the MILF meeting has no permission from provincial government officials and that the presence of rebels alarmed civilians in Lanao del Sur and other areas where the convoys passed.
“The site of rebels armed with high-power weapons in public places is enough reason for civilians to be scared and alarmed. We are monitoring the situation in the province,” the general said.
The MILF said it sought permission to hold the meeting from the Coordinating Committee on Cessation of Hostilities and local government officials.
The MILF, the country’s largest Muslim rebel group, said the seven-year old peace talks now hang in the balance and it assailed the Arroyo government for failing to find a just and lasting solution to end the more than four decades of Muslim insurgency in Mindanao, a region rich in natural resources, but is deep in poverty and torn by strife and terrorism.
More than 100,000 rebels gathered since Sunday in Butig, a Muslim town created in 1963 by then President Diosdado Macapagal, father of now Filipino leader Gloria Arroyo, who opened peace talks with the MILF in 2001 after catapulting herself into power through a bloodless people power revolution.
Peace talks between the government and rebels had been stalled since September 2007 after both sides failed to agree on the scope of the ancestral domain, which is the single most important issue in the negotiations marred by sporadic clashes between security and MILF forces.
The MILF is demanding recognition of the Muslim ancestral domain, which will make a separate homeland that covers the whole of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao consisting of the provinces of Sulu, Tawi-Tawi, Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao and Basilan province.
And also other areas in Zamboanga del Norte, Zamboanga del Sur, Zamboanga Sibugay, North Cotabato, Sultan Kudarat and Sarangani provinces, Palawan where there are large communities of Muslims and indigenous tribes.
Rebel leaders have repeatedly accused Manila of reneging to its commitment.
Chief MILF peace negotiator Mohagher Iqbal said the Philippine peace panel, headed by Rodolfo Garcia, last year had agreed on the scope of the Muslim ancestral domain, but later reneged on the accord that will constitute a homeland for over 4 million Muslims and indigenous tribes in Mindanao.
Iqbal said the government peace negotiators 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. The Philippine Constitution prohibits the dismembering of the country.
The MILF also said there is a group which could sabotage the peace talks. But it did not give details or say who is behind that group or its motives for plotting to derail the peace talks.
However, many politicians whose family owns vast tracks of lands and business interests in Mindanao are opposing the MILF demand for a separate state, saying, it would displaced Christians in areas covered by the ancestral domain.
Mindanao was once under the rule of the Sultan of Sulu and North Borneo until Christian settlers occupied ancestral lands.
The MILF previously appealed to rebels for patience as the talks stalled over demands for a separate Muslim homeland. Last month, US Ambassador Kristie Kenney met 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 agreement with Manila.
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.
Mohammad Ameen, a senior rebel leader, previously said the MILF will only sign a peace deal with the 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. (With reports from Mark Navales and Merlyn Manos)

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