MANILA (Uly Israel / 21 Nov) - Manila's new proposal to the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) buoyed optimism that the impasse in the peace talks could be resolved sooner, Secy. Jesus Dureza, the presidential adviser on peace process, said.
He said the government is optimistic the MILF would accept the proposal. "We are hoping that the government proposal will pave the way for the resumption of the peace talks," he told the Mindanao Examiner.
Peace talks ended in September in Malaysia with both sides failing to sign any agreement on the most contentious issue -- ancestral domain -- which refers to the MILF 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.
The ancestral domain covers the five Muslim autonomous provinces of Basilan, Sulu, Tawi-Tawi, Lanao del Sur and Maguindanao. 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.
The MILF has rejected Manila's offer for a limited autonomy in the mineral-rich, but restive Mindanao island, home to about 4 million Muslims who want a separate Islamic state.
Mohagher Iqbal, chief rebel peace negotiator, said the Philippine government offered the MILF the 5-province Muslim autonomous region and 613 other Muslim villages in exchange for a peace deal.
"They offered the MILF the whole of the Muslim autonomous region and 613 other Muslim villages scattered in Mindanao, but all these are subject to Philippine legislation. The offer is just like a leopard skin and we did not agree with it." "Peace cannot be unilaterally imposed on the MILF and the Muslim people," Iqbal said.
The MILF warned that Manila should be blamed if the peace talks fail, saying, many rebels are slowly losing their patience on the five-year old peace talks. Dureza did not give details of the new proposal.
Dr Abraham Sakali, of the Institute of Islamic Studies of the University of the Philippines, proposed that the Mindanao conflict should be viewed with emphasis on the historical roots of the problem and on the ways by which the injustices could be corrected.
"Looking at the Muslim insurgency in its historical context could very well ease up the wrangling over the thorny issue of determining the size of Bangsamoro Homeland which has stalled the peace talks between the Philippine Government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF)," he said.
"The age-old injustices committed by the Philippine Government against the Muslim population should be given weight and form part of deliberations in the ongoing peace talk. A deeper understanding of the Muslim's cry for independence should give the government negotiating panel a clearer picture on what adequate measures could be adopted to address long-held grievances and ultimately put an end to protracted hostilities in Mindanao," Sakali said.
Malaysia has agreed to initiate another round of talks between the Philippines and the MILF after President Gloria Arroyo personally requested to Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi for help in getting back the negotiations.Abdullah is the chairman of the influential Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC).
Peace talks between the government and MILF started in January 1997 but the absence of a neutral third party bogged down the initiative. It was only on March 24, 2001, after the all-out war against the MILF declared by former President Joseph Estrada that Malaysia, at the behest of the Philippine government, facilitated the talks.
However, in February 2003, despite the avowed all-peace policy of President Arroyo, an all-out war was again declared against the rebels, but both sides later agreed to resume peace talks.
Just this year, President Arroyo said that 80% of the peace talks have been completed and that permanent peace in Mindanao is within reach.
MILF chieftain Murad Ebrahim said the MILF will continue the peace talks, but warned the government that the rebel group would side with the Muslims should they decide on other means to continue their struggle for freedom.
"For the MILF, negotiation is still the best option to resolve the conflict in Mindanao. We have already spent so much time, efforts and resources for this," Ebrahim said. "However, if the government insists to dilly-dally and treat the peace talks as mere counterinsurgency tool, who can blame the Bangsamoro people if they choose other means to continue their legitimate struggle for freedom and self-determination? For the MILF, we will stand by our people." (Mindanao Examiner)