MANILA, Philippines (Mindanao Examiner / August 29, 2008) – Manila on Friday said it is abandoning the homeland deal with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, but would still pursue peace talks with the Philippine’s largest Muslim rebel group, officials said.
Government and rebel peace negotiators last month have initially signed the memorandum of agreement on the ancestral domain. But the Supreme Court stopped the signing of the deal after some lawmakers and politicians opposed to the accord filed separate petitions, saying, there were no public consultations.
The accord would have granted Muslims their own homeland in more than 700 villages across Mindanao, but the deal also sparked a series of protests from politicians and residents opposed to the inclusion of their areas to the agreement that will make up the so-called Bangsamoro Juridical Entity.
President Gloria Arroyo, who opened peace talks with the MILF in 2001, has shifted in the basic premise of the government's peace effort after hundreds of rebels under Ameril Kato and Abdurahman Macapaar led a series of attacks in the provinces in Mindanao that killed dozens of civilians.
“The focus of our talks shall shift from the armed groups to the communities. The parameters governing our negotiations shall be a balance between the constitutionality and public sentiment,” Arroyo said.
Arroyo said the change in the government's approach to end the Mindanao conflict was prompted by the atrocities committed by the MILF attacks.
Hermogenes Esperon, the presidential peace adviser, said the government will longer sign the ancestral domain deal. “We will not sign the memorandum of agreement on the ancestral domain, but will continue with further negotiations with the MILF to arrive at final peace deal,” he told the Mindanao Examiner.
Esperon earlier said the ancestral domain deal is not self-executing and that there is a need for future discussions as peace negotiators frame the comprehensive peace agreement.
The MILF said it will not anymore negotiate the ancestral domain agreement because peace negotiators have already initialed the deal.
“It is already a done deal and we have been saying this all the time. We will not revisit or renegotiate the agreement on the ancestral domain,” Eid Kabalu, a senior MILF leader, said in a separate interview.
Kabalu said the MILF leadership will have to decide what steps to take after Manila abandoned the Muslim homeland deal. “It is really unfortunate that the Philippine government again reneged on the ancestral domain deal which is the product of long and arduous work of the peace negotiators,” he said.
He said the MILF will not abandon its fight for self-determination. “Our right to self-determination is non-negotiable,” he said. Last year, peace talks also stalled after government negotiators approved the Muslim homeland deal only to reneged it later.
Esperon said granting of independence is not and never was the intent of peace talks. He said it was the same position made by President Gloria Arroyo in her May 6 letter to Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi when the government peace panel and MILF were discussing the peace process.
Government peace negotiators and Arroyo's political allies have earlier proposed 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.
Militant groups and political activists have repeatedly accused Arroyo of using the peace talks with the MILF to amend the Constitution and eventually prolong her to stay into power.
Under the presidential form of government, Arroyo 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 and eventually prolong her into power beyond 2010.
Arroyo deposed President Joseph Estrada in a people power revolution in 2001, but corruption scandals in her government and allegations of poll fraud in 2004 has made her extremely unpopular among many Filipinos.
Manila’s announcement coincided with fresh government assaults on suspected rebel strongholds in Maguindanao and Lanao del Norte provinces, where security forces are pursuing the groups of Kato and Macapaar.
Kabalu said military forces fired cannons and rockets and bombed MILF targets in the provinces in the guise of pursuing the two rogue rebel leaders. “They are attacking us and MILF forces have been ordered to defend themselves,” he said.
Lt. Col. Julieto Ando, a spokesman for the Army’s 6th Infantry Division, said the assaults targeted rogue rebels. “This is a punitive action against rogue MILF members and this operation will continue until Kato and Macapaar are captured,” he said.
Manila demanded the MILF to surrender peacefully the two rogue commanders, now wanted by authorities, to face trial over the killings of civilians in the provinces of North Cotabato, Lanao del Norte, Sarangani, Sultan Kudarat and Maguindanao where rebel forces pillaged villages. Rebels launched the attacks after the aborted signing of the controversial ancestral domain agreement.
The influential Organization of the Islamic Conference condemned the rebel attacks. (Mindanao Examiner)