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Philippines to Open Talks with Rebels - 2001-10-17

Negotiations between the Philippine government and rebels of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front are due to begin this week in Malaysia. The Philippine government hopes to end a decades-long separatist insurgency in the south and draw the rebels into a power sharing agreement.

The peace talks were due to begin last week here in Kuala Lumpur, but were postponed after a series of clashes between Philippine security forces and fighters of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

Each side accused the other of responsibility for the violence that included an ambush in which 44 people were killed.

The vice-chairman for military affairs of the MILF, Al-Hadj Murad, complains that the clashes continue despite a cease-fire agreement signed last July. He has called for international monitors, saying his group has been disappointed by the negotiations with the Philippine government.

"Up to now we feel that there has been no change, because the government always can sign agreements but in matters of implementing it, they are not interested in implementing the agreement," said Mr. Murad.

Nevertheless, the MILF official says he remains optimistic about the talks.

Philippine President Gloria Arroyo has pressed for a negotiated settlement to the violence since coming to power earlier this year. Her spokesman, Rigoberto Tiglao, says the government hopes to build confidence through a series of meetings leading to a final settlement. "The strategy is for MILF and the Philippine government to discuss first the non-contentious, non-controversial issues. And the last contentious issue would be the form of autonomy the MILF would want," said the president's spokesman.

A structure for such a regional autonomy already exists. The government has established the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), under a five-year-old agreement with the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). The region, which was recently expanded through a local plebiscite, is preparing to hold local elections next month, but there has been criticism of the autonomous region's government for failing to ease the desperate poverty in the zone.

The director of the Third World Studies Center at the University of the Philippines, Miriam Coronel Ferrer, notes that in the past the MILF has rejected anything but independence for the traditionally Muslim area. But she says the group has since moderated its position. "Now we hear the MILF saying that they are amenable to explore all options that can provide them with some of the changes that they want to put in place," she said. "But they are still keeping the option of independence as an option that they will take if they see that the peace process can no longer provide these changes that they want."

An Asian studies professor at the university, Aziri Abubakar, notes the Philippine government can only go so far. "The government, I think, can offer only autonomy. The government cannot go beyond that. It's what the constitution would allow. And there are signs that the MILF, at least the present leadership of the MILF, is willing to give a chance to the offer of the government," said Prof. Abubakar.

A professor of Islamic Studies at the University of the Philippines, Julkipli Wadi, acknowledges the government can only offer what he calls shared autonomy. "Unfortunately, this administration is not concerned with the long-term or long-range reform, because this administration also is a product of the highly politicized phenomenon in the Philippines," he said. He adds the government must offer more concessions to the guerrillas, including giving more financial support to the government of ARMM.

Professor Wadi notes the central government also faces many domestic problems, including falling standards of living across the country due to the economic crisis of recent years.

As a result, analysts here say there is a risk that the negotiations could drag on inconclusively. And it is possible that if there is an agreement, some elements of the guerrilla group will reject the compromises in it, and the armed struggle will continue.