Filipino rebels rebuff autonomy proposal

The key obstacle at peace talks remains a demand by rebels to establish what many view as a Muslim state within a Catholic country.

A Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) rebel aims his .50 calibre Barret sniper rifle during a drill at camp Rajamuda in north Cotabato in Mindanao island September 22, 2009.   The leader of the Muslim insurgency in the southern Philippines warned that upcoming peace talks may be the last chance for a peaceful settlement with the government. Murad Ibrahim, chairman of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), also warned of "anarchy" if the government fails to seal a peace accord.  AFP PHOTO/Mark Navales
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MANILA // Talks to end a 40-year-old secessionist rebellion in the southern Philippines that has killed more than 120,000 people looked in doubt yesterday after Muslim rebels rejected the latest government offer on autonomy saying the divide between the two sides was "too big". The decision by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) to postpone talks, which were to have resumed in the Malaysian capital later today, also means the chances of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo leaving office on June 30 with a settlement, is highly unlikely, analysts said.

The MILF peace panel chairman Mohagher Iqbal said it had asked for the postponement "to give us time to review the government's draft". "As it stands, the differences between our draft and the government's is too big," he told the Philippine Daily Inquirer yesterday. The key stumbling block is the MILF's demand for the establishment of a Bangsamoro Judicial Entity with sweeping powers that many see as the creation of a Muslim state within the Catholic-majority Republic of the Philippines.

The two sides held talks and exchanged drafts in January in Kuala Lumpur with the view of resuming the talks today. Nasser Marohomsalic, a convener with the Philippine Council for Islam and Democracy, said recently the drafts "did not turn heads". "With barely five months left of the Arroyo presidency and elections round the corner, the peace talks could only make for a sideshow," he told a forum in Manila.

He said the MILF had little faith in the government's willingness to enter a serious dialogue following the "cavalier abandonment of the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain [MOA-AD]" in August 2008. The MOA-AD outlined the establishment of a Bangsamoro (the name given to Mindanao's Muslims) homeland with the Bangsamoro Juridical Entity (BJE) as its governing body in parts of Mindanao. Under the agreement, the BJE would have had the power to set up its security, trade, education, elections, and the right to develop natural resources.

Many politicians and civic groups saw this as the first step in the breaking up of the Philippines and launched a campaign to scuttle the move. The Supreme Court later ruled that the MOA-AD ran "counter to the national sovereignty and territorial integrity of the republic". "The BJE is a far more powerful entity than the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao [ARMM] recognised in the Constitution. It is not merely an expanded version of the ARMM, the status of its relationship with the national government being fundamentally different from that of the ARMM," the court said.

The breakdown of talks saw two senior MILF commanders go on a major rampage through northern and central Mindanao looting and burning villages. Dozens were killed and more than 100,000 still remain in resettlement camps afraid to return home according to the International Committee of the Red Cross. "Since the breakdown of the MOA-AD, the chances are limited that any real substantive progress will be made - before Gloria leaves office," said Pete Troilo, a director with Pacific Strategies & Assessments, a political risk consultancy in Manila.

"This comprehensive peace pact requires the highest levels of political commitment and anything short of that will simply not get the job done," he said. Mr Iqbal said the MILF had submitted a comprehensive draft agreement. In contrast, he said, the government offered nothing new. Rommel Banlaoi, executive director of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research, said: "I doubt whether the two sides can achieve a negotiated political settlement before Mrs Arroyo leaves office. The two panels no longer have the luxury of quality time to arrive at socially acceptable political solutions in order to avoid the hard lessons of the MOA-AD."

He said one of the key obstacles to achieving genuine peace in Mindanao was the failure of effective governance in the conflict zones. "Many towns in Mindanao, particularly in the ARMM areas, do not feel the presence of a government so they resort to arms not only to find a living but also to survive in an area where the rule of force rather than the rule of law prevails." Government negotiator Rafael Seguis said the offer he handed to the rebels was a "conservative opening move", because the government position has to abide by Philippine law.

"What the MILF is demanding would require changing the Constitution and we don't have the mandate to do that. And even if we did there is no guarantee it would be approved." Meanwhile, a 60-member peacekeeping contingent will return to the southern Philippines next week to help safeguard a ceasefire and prevent new clashes. The contingent consists of truce monitors from Brunei, Libya and Malaysia, Mr Iqbal said. The monitors left in 2007 when peace talks bogged down. * With additional reporting by the Associated Press