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Resuming Peace Talks in Philippines a Positive Step

President Benigno Aquino III prepares to hit the peace bell during a rally for peace held to show support to the government's peace process with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, Manila, February 8, 2011

After seven months in office the administration of Philippines President Benigno Aquino resumed peace talks with the separatist group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. The International Crisis Group Thursday released a report on the situation in the southern Mindanao region of the Philippines saying the obstacles to peace are enormous but the resumption of negotiations is promising.

The International Crisis Group report released Thursday says the fact that peace negotiations between the government of the Philippines and the separatist group the Moro Islamic Liberation Front or MILF resumed in February, after being stalled for over two years, is a positive development. Bryony Lau, the group's Southeast Asia analyst, says the election of President Benigno Aquino last year has given the peace talks new life.

"Although we have not seen a lot of movement in terms of the negotiation positions of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the fact that we have a new government that has a new team that is pretty engaged and optimistic is much more promising than the situation this time a year ago," Lau said.

But the report also details the many obstacles to peace in this Catholic majority country where Islamic separatists have been fighting for independence for 40 years in the southern Mindanao region. The region has already been given a degree of autonomy that was negotiated with a rival insurgency group called the Moro National Liberation Front. The two groups are deeply divided the reports says, and the current local government is seen as dysfunctional. Last year Mindanao Governor Zaldy Ampatuan was arrested for involvement in an attack on a rival political group that killed 57 people. Lau says there are also concerns that MILF is supporting terrorist activities.

"Periodically there are suggestions in the Philippines media of MILF members being involved in terrorist attacks, most notably with the bombing in the central business district of Manila in late January,” Lau added. “And immediately after that bombing there were rumors that the type of weapon used and the way it was detonated was reminiscent of tactics used in the MILF heartland."

The report says the MILF wants a greater degree of autonomy and more clearly defined powers such as the ability to form an internal security force. The government has so far been noncommittal in the talks but Lau says it would likely want reassurances on security issues and clearly defined borders for the region that is spread across a number of islands.

Talks are scheduled to resume in April.