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Philippine Government, Muslim Rebels to Resume Talks Monday


Peace talks between the Philippine government and Muslim rebels resume in Malaysia Monday. There is renewed hope from both sides that a final settlement to more than 30 years of separatist conflict in the south is within reach. The talks will open with a new player at the negotiating table: the United States.

Malaysia and long-time Philippine ally, the United States, had been working behind the scenes for weeks to get talks re-started.

The high-level diplomatic effort paid off when Philippine President Gloria Arroyo used her annual state of the nation address Monday to announce her government will resume negotiations with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front rebels on August 4.

Negotiations came to a halt six months ago when a cease-fire agreement collapsed after the government accused the MILF rebels of links to terrorists and kidnapping plots.

President Arroyo ordered a military offensive against the group, and threatened to include it on the international terrorist list.

A surge of violence erupted on the southern island of Mindanao with dozens of civilians killed in bombings and clashes.

The rebels eventually called a unilateral cease-fire and renounced terrorism, but the government said the MILF was still not sincere about wanting peace in its 30-year separatist struggle.

At an impasse, President Gloria Arroyo met with both Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad in Tokyo and his deputy Abdullah Ahmad Badawi in Manila last month. After those meetings, Malaysia, which has facilitated talks since 2001, offered to send peacekeepers to the troubled south.

But analysts say it was U.S. support for the peace process that tipped the balance.

During Ms. Arroyo's visit to Washington in May, President Bush pledged to give at least $30 million to rehabilitate and develop the impoverished south, but only if the two sides reach a final peace deal. Washington would also be sending an observer to the talks.

Analysts say the pressure from the United States, especially in the disbursement of the aid money, has prompted the government to soften its stance on the Moro rebels.

Professor Julkipli Wadi of the University of the Philippines' Islamic Institute says the U.S. role is a boost to the peace process.

"They have been going to Kuala Lumpur [Malaysia] for several years but nothing happened," he said. "The United States has been coming in as an indirect partner of the Philippines for the past 50 years or so by in fact providing arms to the government. So in other words, it has been, in fact, involved. The negotiations would be a bit more serious now than before, because there would be a third party that would be respected by both parties. Because in the past, the dominant party, the government, can just dismiss anything."

The MILF had earlier welcomed U.S. participation in the talks.

The resumption of the peace negotiations comes as the government faces allegations of corruption in the military, including the alleged sale of arms to Muslim rebels.

Analysts say the failed mutiny Sunday by soldiers, who are veterans of the war in the south, have again highlighted the need to address the bigger problems there: underdevelopment, poverty and lack of political representation for the country's Muslim minority.

"It's going to be very difficult to address these concerns if you are fighting a war at the same time," said Miriam Ferrer, the director of Third World Studies Center at the University of the Philippines. "The solutions can only prosper if our resources are not being used up in political conflicts, in armed conflicts. But it's all because the war cannot really be won simply through military confrontation, given the fact that the problems are really deep-rooted and have to be addressed in terms of more thorough going and more comprehensive social and economic reforms."

The talks Monday are not expected to touch on political issues yet. Negotiations will focus on security measures and economic development programs, issues that had already been agreed upon when the talks fell apart earlier this year.