Monday, July 28, 2008

Philippine, MILF Negotiators Back On Peace Table Again

COTABATO CITY, Philippines (Mindanao Examiner / July 28, 2008) – Philippine peace negotiators and Muslim rebels fighting for a separate Islamic state have agreed to resume talks after both sides reached a deal on the issue of the ancestral domain.

Government negotiators late Sunday rushed to make a deal with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and promised the rebels a plebiscite for a Muslim homeland in the island of Mindanao ahead of President Gloria Arroyo’s State of the Nation Address.

“The signing of the agreement on the ancestral domain is a breakthrough alright, but we still don’t know what is ahead, not until the peace agreement is finally signed. It is really very difficult to say with how the talks are going on,” Eid Kabalu, a senior MILF leader, told the Mindanao Examiner on Monday.

“We hope the talks would succeed so peace may reign in Mindanao,” he said.

Arroyo’s peace adviser Hermogenes Esperon said there is need to amend the Constitution to allow referendum on areas under the ancestral domain that would make up the so-called Bangsamoro Juridical Entity.

Mohagher Iqbal, chief MILF peace negotiator, said both sides have already agreed on the issue of ancestral domain and formal signing was set next month in Malaysia where they held the talks at the weekend.

"We have already initialed the Memorandum of Agreement on the Ancestral Domain at ten p.m. tonight. There will be formal signing on August. The document is secured from further discussion," Iqbal said in a separate interview.

Rebel leaders have accused the Arroyo government of reneging on previous agreements on the Muslim ancestral domain that led to the failure of the peace talks in Malaysia. Government peace negotiators led by Rodolfo Garcia tried to change an earlier deal on the ancestral domain that led to the collapse of the talks on Friday, Iqbal said.

President Gloria Arroyo's peace adviser Hermogenes Esperon flew Sunday to Malaysia to restart the stalled talks and eventually agreeing to the rebel demand for a separate homeland.

The MILF also wanted the August 11 elections in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) postponed until after the peace agreement is signed.

The five-province ARMM is included in the ancestral domain, including some areas in Zamboanga Peninsula, North Cotabato, Sultan Kudarat and Sarangani provinces in Mindanao where there are large communities of Muslims and indigenous tribes. And also Palawan Island in central Philippines.

The formal signing of the agreement on the ancestral domain was originally set on August 5. Arroyo has supported the proposal to postpone the ARMM polls for the peace talks to succeed.

Iqbal said the formal signing would be held in Malaysia with Esperon, Garcia and Secretary Norberto Gonzales, Arroyo's security adviser.

The MILF previously said it will not sign any peace deal with the Arroyo government unless its demand for self-determination is granted. Last year, peace talks were also stalled after government negotiators reneged on the same deal.

Arroyo opened peace talks with the MILF in 2001 after deposing President Joseph Estrada in a bloodless revolution. But despite the peace talks, sporadic fighting between rebels and soldiers still continue in Mindanao with both sides accusing each other of violating a fragile truce accord.

The MILF is fighting for the establishment of a strict Islamic state in Mindanao, whose more than 18 million populations include about 4 million Muslims. The Arroyo government previously offered the MILF the whole of 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 flatly rejected the offer and insisted on self-determination.
But peace negotiators earlier this month signed an agreement in Kuala Lumpur that will empower the Bangsamoro Juridical Entity to build, develop and maintain its own institutions, inclusive of civil service, electoral, financial and banking, education, legislation, legal, economic, police and internal security force, judicial system and correctional institutions necessary for developing a progressive Muslim society. (Mindanao Examiner)

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