Manila – A peace agreement between the Philippine government and the Muslim Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) - now seen as highly likely before the year is out - will not only help end a long-running civil war but will also deprive foreign terrorists of their key training bases.
"A peace agreement with the MILF will result in the demobilisation and disarmament of most of its members," said Philippine Defence Secretary Avelino Cruz at the Shangri-La Dialogue, a high-level security forum in Singapore, on June 5.
"We are hopeful that a peace agreement with the MILF will draw the line that will separate its moderate members who will return to the fold of the law, from its rogue elements that may have been providing support and sanctuaries to local and foreign terrorists," he added.
Mr Cruz said positive developments in recent weeks, especially a readiness on both sides to compromise on the thorny issue of the rebels’ ancestral land, "have given us hope that a peace agreement will be reached before the end of this year".
In Cotabato City, MILF chairman Al Haj Murad said on June 4 that a peace agreement with the government could help stop foreign terrorists from getting into the southern Philippines.
He said a "war situation" hinders effective governance in the region and makes it difficult for both the government and the MILF to control the entry of Jemaah Islamiah and other Al-Qaeda-linked terrorists who pass through the country’s porous maritime borders with Indonesia and Malaysia.
The 12,000-member MILF has been waging a separatist rebellion for an independent Islamic state in Mindanao since 1978. Peace talks began in January 1997 but were repeatedly stalled by hostilities between government troops and the rebels. Persistent reports of JI militants linking up with Muslim militants in Mindanao to carry out a wave of bombings also clouded the negotiations.
Mr Murad said the rebels have a "very strict" policy of rejecting terrorism. "If there are individuals who resort to terrorism, they are not MILF," Mr Murad said.
* Cruz: Peace pact with MILF likely in 2006 (The Manila Times, June 6)
* MILF: Peace pact to stop entry of terrorists to RP (The Philippine Star, June 5)