Manila – Despite a minor skirmish just three days earlier, the long-stalled talks between the Philippine government and the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) opened in Kuala Lumpur on April 18 on a guardedly optimistic note. One sliver of hope:The MILF, which wants to establish an independent Islamic state, is willing to make a compromise that would give it control only over Muslim-dominated areas in southern Mindanao island.
On April 16, the MILF filed a protest with an international monitoring team against the Philippine military’s alleged violations of their ceasefire agreement. The 64-member monitoring team, led by Malaysia, is deployed in key cities of Mindanao to monitor the ceasefire agreement signed by the government and the MILF in July 2003.
MILF spokesman Eid Kabalu said a 15-minute battle ensued after government soldiers trespassed into its perimeter defence on the outskirts of a town in Maguindanao province on April 15. At least five rebels died and five others wounded in the attack.
An army spokesman said the soldiers were running after suspected Abu Sayyaf bandits who had been sighted in the area.
However, Mr Kabalu said the alleged violation would not in any way affect the three-day peace talks. The MILF rebels have been waging a rebellion for decades to wrestle the mainly-Muslim Mindanao island from the predominantly Roman Catholic Philippines.
In an interview with the Associated Press, Mr Kabalu said the MILF recognises that it would be difficult to take control of regions where Christian migrants have settled over the years.
“Originally, we wanted the whole of Mindanao - Sulu, Tawi Tawi and Palawan - but the reality is we no longer control all these areas,” Mr Kabalu said. “There could be a compromise that would give us control over Muslim-majority areas.”
Both the MILF and the government are guardedly optimistic about the talks, acknowledging that they are still far from a peace accord. The KL talks will tackle the contentious issue of ancestral domain, which covers the cultural rights and property of ethnic Muslim tribes, management of natural resources and identifying territory.
Presidential adviser Teresita Deles said it was a good sign that the talks had finally shifted to the main issues after focusing for some time on ways to halt major clashes.
Mr Kabalu said the MILF would not rush into signing an accord that fails to address the root causes of the rebellion. Analysts have said that centuries of oppression and neglect have made the Muslim parts of Mindanao the most impoverished areas in the country.
In an editorial, The Manila Times said: “The talks in…Kuala Lumpur present a golden chance for Mindanao to realise its full potential as the land of opportunity. It would be a shame to let it go to waste.”
* Clash mars opening of got-MILF talks (Philippine Daily Inquirer, April 18)
* MILF panel willing to compromise with got (The Manila Times, April 18)
* A golden chance for Mindanao (The Manila Times, April 18)