Muslim separatist rebels in the southern Philippines said Friday they were “disgusted” by President Gloria Arroyo’s failure to seal a peace agreement with them after nine years of negotiations.
Mohaqer Iqbal, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front’s (MILF) chief negotiator, also said his group was wary of Arroyo’s successor, Benigno Aquino, because many of the incoming leader’s advisers were regarded as hostile to the rebels.
“It is disgusting that after almost 10 years in office, the peace process was not completed during her term,” Iqbal told AFP in a telephone interview.
He singled out the collapse of a draft agreement forged by Arroyo’s administration in 2008 that would have created a large autonomous area on the southern island of Mindanao under the control of the 12,000-strong MILF.
In retaliation, MILF commanders launched a series of attacks on mostly Christian communities that killed nearly 400 people and displaced more than 700,000 at the height of the fighting.
Iqbal said that, even though Arroyo’s negotiators helped forge the agreement, she failed to support it when it came under political attack.
“She lacked real political will to push through with the agreement,” he said.
Arroyo said when she became president in 2001 that she was determined to end the conflict, which has claimed more than 150,000 lives since 1978.
But she will step down on June 30, as required by constitutional term limits, without having reached a peace agreement with the MILF.
In a speech to a forum on global conflicts in Manila on Friday, Arroyo defended her record on the MILF issue and said there had been progress that had laid the groundwork for an eventual peace settlement.
“The efforts we have made over the last nine years have brought us closer to achieving long-term peace in the region,” she said.
Arroyo also pointed out many small accords had been signed on such matters as protection of civilians and maintenance of the ceasefire.
At the same forum, Arroyo’s peace adviser, Annabelle Abaya, acknowledged the failure of the 2008 draft agreement had been a “debacle” for both sides.
But she said it had taught negotiators from both sides about the need to be patient and not to take hard positions.
“It is not quick, it requires work and I think when we look at the next administration, they will discover what we ourselves have discovered,” she said.
Iqbal said the MILF also regarded Aquino, who won this month’s presidential elections by a landslide, with caution because he was associated with politicians who had opposed the 2008 draft agreement.
He said the MILF feared this indicated that Aquino could take a more hardline stance than Arroyo towards the rebels.
“If his decisions are based on those around him, we would be worried,” he said.
Iqbal warned that the government could not expect the Muslim rebels to just let the negotiations and the ceasefire go on indefinitely.
“We cannot expect the ceasefire to go on forever because our people would find some way, somewhere, to resolve the issue later on,” he warned.