Gov’t hopes for MILF peace deal in days

Agence France-Presse
'To state that what we hope to be able to do in the next few days is historical is definitely an understatement,' says chief government negotiator Marvic Leonen

Marvic Leonen (L), chair of the Philippine government panel, and Mohagher Iqbal (R), chief negotiator of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), shake hands at the end of the 31st round of Formal Exploratory Talks in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, September 8, 2012. Looking on is Malaysian facilitator Tengku Dato Abdul Ghafar Tengku Mohamed (C). Photo courtesy of the OPAPP.

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – The Philippine government said Tuesday, October 2, a “historical” roadmap to end a decades-long Muslim insurgency that has left more than 150,000 people dead could be signed within days.

The government issued the upbeat forecast as the latest round of peace talks with the 12,000-strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) began in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur.

“We are on the brink of layering the written predicates that can frame the process of building trust as we usher in an era of peace, of hope and of recovery,” chief government negotiator Marvic Leonen said at the start of the talks, according to a Philippine government statement.

“We cannot postpone any longer. Now is the time,” he said.

“To state that what we hope to be able to do in the next few days is historical is definitely an understatement.”

Mohagher Iqbal, chief negotiator for the MILF, said in his opening remarks that negotiations were “now on the home stretch,” according to the statement.

However he warned a resolution must be reached soon, after previous false dawns in the peace process had led to more violence.

“If we cannot conclude it soon successfully, now that we are at the brink of the exercise, we will be in trouble,” Iqbal said, warning of “spoilers” who may want to derail the peace efforts for their own interests.

The government and the rebels said ahead of the talks there was a strong spirit of cooperation following months of intense diplomacy.

But they also conceded many of the issues that derailed previous peace efforts had still not been agreed upon.

Among the toughest points to be resolved are the extent of the MILF’s power in an envisioned autonomous region in the southern island of Mindanao, and the exact terms of proposed wealth sharing in that area.

Mindanao is home to vast untapped reserves of gold, copper and other minerals, as well as being one of the country’s most important farming regions.

There are roughly four million Muslims in Mindanao, which they see as their ancestral homeland dating back to Islamic sultanates established before Spanish Christians arrived in the 1500s.

The MILF and other Muslim rebel groups have been fighting for independence or autonomy in Mindanao since the early 1970s.

The rebellion has claimed more than 150,000 lives, most in the 1970s when all-out war raged, and left large parts of mineral-rich Mindanao in deep poverty.

The MILF is the biggest and most important rebel group left, after the Moro National Liberation Front signed a peace pact with the government in 1996.

Since opening peace talks with the government in 2003, the MILF has said it is willing to accept autonomy rather than independence.

The group came close to a peace deal with the government in 2008, under the previous administration led by then-president Gloria Arroyo, that would have given them control over 700 townships and villages.

But amid furious protests from leading Christian politicians in the south, as well as the influential Catholic Church, the Supreme Court ruled that deal was unconstitutional.

Two MILF commanders reacted to the court order by leading attacks on mainly Christian villages in Mindanao, with the unrest killing 400 people and displacing about 750,000 others.

Leonen told reporters in Manila this month the government had been consulting with officials in the south as well as leading national politicians to ensure their support for the planned new deal and avoid a repeat of 2008. – Agence France-Presse

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