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Breakthrough in talks between Philippine government, Muslim rebels

Thursday, April 21, 2005

President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo of the Philippines

The Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP) and Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) announced substantial points of agreement this Thursday on key issues related to Ancestral Domain that may bring peace to the troubled Mindanao region in the months ahead.

The announcement came as a result of a three-day conference this week held in Malaysia in the town of Port Dickinson. "I would like to thank Malaysian Prime Minster Abdullah Badawi not only for leading the ceasefire process but for facilitating the substantive negotiations", stated GRP President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

Malaysia has led an International Monitoring Team attempting to support and enforce the cease-fire both sides agreed to in 1997, although violence has occasionally flared up, even in the days leading up to the meeting.

"Since we have been talking peace to the Philippine government, this is the first time we have touched on the substantive agenda of the peace process," said the chief negotiator for MILF, Mohaqher Iqbal.

The areas of concern in this week's talks relate to the Ancestral Domain portion of the Tripoli Agreement of June 22, 2001. Ancestral domain refers to territories claimed to be inhabited by the ancestors of indigenous peoples, and was discussed by the two groups in terms of concept, territory, governance, and resources. Security and Rehabilitative Aspects of this and other agreements have already been discussed and are currently being implemented.

"We have had some detailed consensus points [concerning the land issue]," said Silvestre Afable Jr., chief negotiator for GRP. "We agreed that we have bridged 60 or 70 percent of the issue in the area of ancestral domain." However, the spokesmen declined to cite the specific areas of agreement.

The predominantly Roman Catholic nation has seen outbreaks of kidnapping and violence with Muslim separatists groups such as MILF and the former Moro National Liberation Front (MNFL) which concluded separate peace talks in 1987. Fighting since the 1960s has resulted in at least 120,000 deaths.

The MILF is estimated to currently have 11,000-12,000 members or more. The term Moro in the group's name comes from the Spanish term for Arab Muslims, or Moors, used during the Reconquista period.

The area of land under discussion, called Bangsamoro, refers to an area of the southern Philippines, including the island of Mindanao and other areas, claimed by the MILF as their ancestral homeland. This area could include as much as one-third of the Philippines.

This meeting was the seventh in a series of GRP-MLF Exploratory Talks, and the first to result in a breakthrough on substantive issues not related to immediate security concerns.

Further talks are planned for next month in Malaysia, but full resolution of the conflict is not expected at least until peace talks begin in June. Remaining potential areas of conflict such as the issue of governance must also be resolved.

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