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Cautious optimism in RP as peace talks to resume

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DATU SAUDI AMPATUAN - Farmer Kinsag Alih is looking forward to his first rice harvest in two years, hoping the men with guns will stay away long enough for the yellowing grains to ripen.

Alih lives on Mindanao, a Muslim-majority island in the south of the mostly Roman Catholic Philippines, where the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) has been fighting for more than 30 years.

In August 2008 it abandoned peace talks and mounted attacks across Mindanao after the Supreme Court ruled a proposed peace deal that would have given the group control over large areas of the south was unconstitutional.

Now, though, late October should be doubly lucky for Alih as the 70-year-old and his neighbours reap the long-idle paddies while the combatants return to the negotiating table in a bid to end the conflict he has lived with for half his life.

"We hope the negotiations will resolve the conflict. But you always have to be prepared... anything can happen," said Alih, stooped from a life of hardship on the edges of a decades-old battlefield.

Two years ago Alih packed off his family and their meagre belongings to an evacuation site across town, leaving the 191-hectare rain-fed communal paddies, tended by a cooperative of 120 families, to the weeds.

"The mortars were whizzing by, there was gunfire everywhere, and we had to stay in evacuation centres for a long time," Alih told AFP as he surveyed the crops.

The MILF has agreed to resuming formal negotiations, which are expected to start in nearby Malaysia no later than November.

That would be a few weeks after the rice harvest, unless fighting drives the farmers away again.

The upsurge of violence in 2008 displaced 750,000 people, including Alih's family, and left nearly 400 people dead.

Some of those who stayed in cramped evacuation centres later died from disease, forcing the international community to step up humanitarian aid.

While Alih and the bulk of the displaced have returned home amid a fragile ceasefire, about 60,000 others have been unable to or remain fearful for their safety.

The rebels in 2009 agreed to resume talks with Manila, but a ceasefire that was signed has been frequently marred by sporadic attacks by rogue elements of the MILF.

President Benigno Aquino's chief peace adviser, Teresita Deles said both sides hoped to resume talks by November at the latest.

But she voiced fears about possible saboteurs, who she said have vested interests in keeping the situation in the south from improving.

"There are always security fears, not necessarily from the rebel group itself," Deles told AFP during a visit this week to the south.

"But the reality is, there still many personalities or parties that want to see this government fail."

The 12,000-strong MILF began waging a separatist rebellion in 1978, in a conflict that has left over 150,000 dead and impoverished the mineral-rich island of Mindanao, the Catholic country's southern third.

The group began exploring a peace deal with Manila when Gloria Arroyo came to power in 2001, but she failed to end the rebellion by the time she stepped down this year.

This week the MILF said it was no longer seeking a separate state, but rather was pushing for a Muslim "sub-state" under the Philippine government.

"It can mean lesser than independence, (an) autonomous republic," MILF chief negotiator Mohagher Iqbal said.

"We are looking at a two-year time frame to finish the talks if (the) government is serious," he said.

Observers in the south however, believe that government's vow of bagging a peace deal with the MILF during Aquino's term could be easier said than done.

Muslimin Sema, a local official and former Muslim separatist leader, accused the government of reneging on its promise to provide real autonomy that allows for self-determination for the Muslims.

The MILF is a splinter from Sema's group, the Moro National Liberation Front. The latter signed a deal with Manila in 1996 that led to the creation of of a self-rule area called the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM)

"The MNLF cannot even by imagination see any agreement to be forged between government and the MILF," Sema said.

He said the ARMM has remained largely a "bogus autonomous government" with no real powers.

Because it still relies on funds from the central government, the region remains mired in massive poverty with the highest illiteracy rate in the country.
Sema said the national government must first amend the Muslim autonomy law to give it direct powers to control its resources before offering extended autonomy to the MILF.

The international humanitarian community cautiously welcomed the upcoming peace talks, but Stephen Anderson, country head of the World Food Programme, believes much more needs to be done for the displaced.

"We're still in the early days. Much can still happen. The peace process is gathering steam and we can't make any judgment," Anderson said.

"But we're optimistic they have a good basis to move forward." (AFP)




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