Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Moro rebels still hoping for peace in southern Philippines

Moro Islamic Liberation Front Vice Chairman Mohagher Iqbal, left, and lawyer Michael Mastura, walk down a hotel stair Saturday, October 10, 2009 after a forum on the peace process between Manila and MILF in Zamboanga City in the southern Philippines. (Mindanao Examiner Photo / Jung Francisco)

ZAMBOANGA CITY, Philippines (Mindanao Examiner / October 10, 2009) – The Philippines’ largest Muslim rebel group, Moro Islamic Liberation Front, on Saturday expressed optimism the stalled peace talks with the Arroyo government would resume.

The talks were stalled last year after the failed signing of the Muslim homeland deal that led to renewed fighting in Mindanao that killed dozens of rebels and soldiers.

“We still hope that the peace talks would resume and eventually lead to a peace deal,” the MILF vice chairman Mohagher Iqbal, who also heads the group’s peace panel, told the independent regional newspaper Mindanao Examiner.

Iqbal led a high-level team in Zamboanga City for a two-day forum on the peace process attended by many stake holders, peace advocates and members of the civil society groups among others.

The forum, he said, is part of a series of public consultations in the southern Philippines on the status of the peace talks. “This is to inform the people of what we have achieved as far as the peace process is concerned. We have repeatedly and publicly said that we are for peace and we want peace to reign in Mindanao,” Iqbal said.

He said despite the stalled peace talks, the MILF and Manila’s peace negotiators headed by Rafael Seguis have met in three separate occasions since July in Malaysia to discuss the formal resumption of the talks.

Iqbal said peace negotiators have agreed to sustain a cease-fire agreement between the MILF and the Arroyo government; and acknowledged that the memorandum of agreement on the Muslim ancestral domain as an unsigned and yet initialed document and commitment by both parties to a re-frame the consensus points with the end in view of moving towards the comprehensive compact to bring about a negotiated political settlement.

He said they also agreed to work for a framework agreement on the establishment of a mechanism on the protection of non-combatants in armed conflict and the establishment of the so-called International Contact Group which would be made up of a group of states and non-state organizations to accompany and mobilize international support for the peace process.

Malaysia, an influential member of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, is facilitating the peace talks between the MILF and the Philippine government.

Iqbal was accompanied in Zamboanga City by lawyer Datu Michael Mastura, Abdullah Kamlian and Jun Mantawil, who are also members of the MILF peace panel. Iqbal also granted an interview to the Mindanao Examiner Television in Zamboanga City.

The mayor of Zamboanga, Celso Lobregat, along with Iligan City mayor Lawrence Cruz and North Cotabato deputy governor Emmanuel Pinol had opposed the memorandum of agreement on the Muslim ancestral domain, saying it was without public consultations, an allegations denied by the government and rebel peace negotiators.

The Supreme Court last year ruled the memorandum of agreement on the Muslim ancestral domain was unconstitutional.

The MILF previously accused the government negotiators then headed by Rodolfo Garcia of completely disregarding the agreement on the ancestral domain and insisted that the granting of homeland to Muslims in Mindanao would solely be through Constitutional process which the rebel group opposed.

The Philippine charter prohibits the dismembering of the country.

The proposed Muslim ancestral domain covers the whole of Muslim autonomous region 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. And even Palawan Island in central Philippines and the Sulu Archipelago.

President Arroyo has opened up peace talks with the MILF in 2001, but since then no substantial agreements have been signed between the two sides, expect for the cease-fire accord.

The MILF earlier warned that hostilities may erupt in Mindanao if the peace talks fail. The Philippine military previously demanded MILF rebels to lay down their weapons before peace talks could resume. (With a report from Jung Francisco)

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