The Philippine government is drafting a constitutional amendment that would authorize the establishment of a federal homeland for Muslims in the south of the country. The proposed amendment is part of a complex peace process between the government and a major Muslim rebel group. Douglas Bakshian reports from Manila.
Last November, an important agreement was reached between the Philippine government and the rebel Moro Islamic Liberation Front. The two sides agreed on the size of a proposed homeland for the country's Muslims in the south of the country.
This definition of what is called "the territory" is part of larger peace negotiations between the government the MILF, and was due to be formalized on December 15.
But the MILF objected to what it called "extraneous" material in a government draft of the agreement. This included a provision for congressional approval of any peace deal.
The MILF says it fears Congress may weaken any peace deal reached by the negotiators, as happened to a 1996 peace agreement with another rebel group, the Moro National Liberation Front.
Jesus Dureza, President Gloria Arroyo's adviser on the peace process, says the government has concluded that establishing a Muslim homeland requires an amendment to the constitution.
"The cabinet, with the president, had agreed that if it even takes amending the constitution to establish a federal Muslim governance unit in the southern Philippines, then we should push through that track. That is where we are today," he said.
Dureza says he hopes a definitive draft will be ready by the end of the month. He says the Arroyo administration believes it can generate bipartisan support in Congress for the amendment.
Despite the Muslims' distrust of Congress, chief MILF negotiator Mohagher Iqbal says there is still room for maneuver.
Iqbal says the group might be able to live with congressional approval of an amendment specifically establishing a Muslim homeland. But he says Congress cannot be given authority to alter the terms of a broad peace agreement between the rebels and the government.
"It has to be something that whatever is done through constitutional processes would not derogate any of the prior agreements between us and the government," Iqbal said. " If it can be worded like that, I think it's worth examining. "
The latest round of peace talks has gone on for three years, and the November agreement on territory was hailed as a breakthrough. Both sides say they do not want to lose the momentum of the talks.
A separatist insurgency by the concentration of Muslims in the south of this predominately Catholic country has been running for 40 years, and has claimed more than 120,000 lives.