Muslim guerrillas reject Philippine government autonomy offer, impasse feared

By Jim Gomez, AP
Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Impasse feared in Philippine talks with rebels

MANILA, Philippines — Muslim guerrillas said Wednesday they have rejected the Philippine government’s latest autonomy offer, making it difficult to forge any peace accord before President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo leaves office in June.

Government negotiators and the 11,000-strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which has fought for Muslim self-rule in the southern Philippines for decades, last month resumed talks following a yearlong hiatus.

The Philippine Supreme Court in 2008 declared unconstitutional a preliminary peace pact, leading to fierce fighting that killed hundreds and displaced about 750,000 people. Clashes subsided last July but about 100,000 people remain displaced, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross.

The rebel front is the biggest of at least four Muslim rebel groups that have waged a bloody rebellion that has killed more than 120,000 people in Mindanao, the southern homeland of minority Muslims in the largely Roman Catholic Philippines.

During last month’s talks brokered by neighboring Malaysia, government negotiators offered a type of limited autonomy that the guerrillas had already rejected twice in the past because it gave them too little power in a limited territory, said rebel negotiator Mohagher Iqbal.

The guerrillas, in turn, submitted a draft of a peace accord that would grant Filipino Muslims greater authority in a larger region that would fall under the central government in Manila, Iqbal said.

He warned that the talks may again stall if the government will insist on its position.

“They will continue to be the king and we will be their subjects under their offer,” Iqbal told The Associated Press. “There’s going to be an impasse if they will not move from their position.”

A hindrance may further agitate rebel commanders who have been skeptical of negotiating with the government and want to pursue the rebellion, Iqbal said.

Dismayed by the government’s offer, the rebels postponed a new round of talks scheduled for this week in Malaysia.

Government negotiator Rafael Seguis said that the offer he handed to the rebels was a “conservative opening move,” because the government position has to abide by Philippine laws. Many rebel demands would require passage of new laws, he said.

“We’re a government. We cannot propose anything outside of the constitution,” Seguis said, adding he wanted to continue talking to the rebels to resolve differences.

Rebel spokesman Eid Kabalu said the setback made it more difficult to forge a peace deal in the remaining five months before Arroyo’s term ends.

Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita acknowledged that a peace deal is unlikely to be signed under Arroyo if the rebels insist on the establishment of a Muslim region similar to a federal state, which will require amendments to the country’s constitution.

“It cannot happen now because it’s not in our constitution,” Ermita told reporters.

A 60-member peacekeeping contingent, meanwhile, will return to the southern Philippines next week to help safeguard a cease-fire and prevent new clashes. The contingent consists of truce monitors from Brunei, Libya and Malaysia, Iqbal said.

The monitors left in 2007 when peace talks bogged down.

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