The Philippine government and Muslim separatist rebels are holding two-days of peace talks in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in an effort to end a three-decade guerrilla war in the southern Philippines. The talks, which began Monday, are only part of a wide-ranging peace process.
The key issue in this round of talks is a factor called ancestral domain. The two sides will try to work out the precise geographical limits of the ancestral homeland proposed by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, or MILF, on the island of Mindanao.
Although Muslims claim the southern region of Mindanao as their ancestral home, much of the area came under the control of Christian settlers in the past century, leading to conflicts. The Philippines population is predominantly Roman Catholic.
In an interview with VOA ahead of the talks, Mohaqher Iqbal, head of the MILF peace panel, said working out ancestral domain issues is crucial to reaching a final settlement.
"We have to tackle ancestral domain, because if we cannot tackle this one and come up with an agreement, then we cannot proceed to the final agenda of the peace talk," said Iqbal. "And that is finding a just, lasting, and comprehensive negotiated political settlement to the Moro problem in Mindanao."
Besides geographical limits, other related issues remain. How the region will be governed and claims to natural resources, ranging from gold to water, must eventually be worked out.
MILF spokesman Iqbal stresses that the peace talks are a process that goes by stages and his organization does not operate on timelines. Philippine government officials say they hope for a final agreement by as early as the middle of this year. At the same time they acknowledge the complicated nature of the talks.
The three-decade conflict with the MILF has claimed more than 120,000 lives. The unrest has stunted economic development and discouraged foreign investment in Mindanao, home to most of the Philippines' Muslim citizens.
In the 1990s the Philippine government reached a peace agreement with the Moro National Liberation Front, granting much of Mindanao considerable autonomy. The MILF, however, split from that group and argues the deal with the government is inadequate. The last round of MILF peace talks was held in September.
The United States has praised Manila for its negotiations with the MILF. Washington over the years has provided military aid and training to help the Philippine government fight terrorist groups on its territory.