The Philippines government and the Muslim separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front are reported to be close to resuming talks, after Manila announced that it has dropped a precondition for arresting key commanders, Umbra Kato and Bravo.
Media reports cited foreign affairs undersecretary Rafael Seguis on Wednesday saying that the government peace panel is now waiting for the resumption of talks to be scheduled with the MILF by Malaysian facilitators.
The two commanders, at least formally repudiated by the MILF central command, are accused to have led a series of raids against Christian villages in the south in August last year.
The raids were sparked by the Philippines Supreme Court ruling that stopped the two parties from signing a memorandum which would have allowed the territory to be included in an autonomous Moro homeland, the Bangsamoro Juridical Entity. The court later ruled the agreement unconstitutional.
Seguis said on Wednesday that the peace talks can resume even if the army is still to arrest the two rogue rebels.
On the fringes of the Asean meeting held last week in Thailand, Malaysian prime minister Abdullah Badawi confirmed Kuala Lumpur’s commitment to the talks.
The combined effect of the Supreme Court ruling and the two commanders’ raids has led to worsening conflict in Mindanao.
Clashes between the army and rebel fighters have taken place almost daily and scores of people have been killed. The National Disaster Coordinating Council also said that more than half a million people were displaced at the height of the fighting in August last year.
It is estimated that some 112,000 people are still living in evacuation camps while another 200,000 are staying with friends or relatives.
The government has long stated that it will end its military operations when the MILF turns over the rogue commanders.
The MILF, however, is unwilling to hand over the commanders and wants international monitors to determine whether the men were responsible for ceasefire violations.
The Malaysian-led international team left Mindanao last November citing frustration with the slow progress of the talks.
According to the International Crisis Group think-tank, “the MILF has no interest in alienating Kato and cannot control Bravo.”
In its latest report, released in February, the Brussels-based ICG also expressed scepticism regarding a solution to the conflict.
“As it stands, the two sides are too far apart, the potential spoilers too numerous, and the political will in Manila too weak to hope for a negotiated peace any time soon,” the ICG said.
More than 80% of the five million Muslims in the Philippines live in Mindanao, where the MILF has been fighting for an independent separatist state since the 1970s.
According to the 2007 census, 81% of the 88.5 million Filipinos are Catholics.