Concern over stalled Mindanao peace talks

Aid workers and analysts have expressed concern after the Philippines' largest Muslim separatist group rejected a proposed peace deal relating to the island of Mindanao.

"Any obstacle that prevents the ongoing peace process from moving forward is a concern to the WFP [UN World Food Programme]," Stephen Anderson, country director of WFP, which has been helping some 200,000 people a month since 2008, told IRIN on 6 September.

"What is needed is a sustained period of peace so that long-term development can take root," Anderson said.

"The communities remain traumatized, and any talk of an apparent resurgence of threat could force them to start moving again," Romy Elusfa, a spokesman for, a group helping in relief efforts and the monitoring of internally displaced persons (IDPs), added.

On 5 September, Murad Ebrahim, the leader of the 12,000-strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), announced that the government's draft peace accord, submitted during the last round of negotiations in August, was unacceptable.

While the government has not released details, the rebels say the government offered them an enhanced version of an existing Muslim autonomous region, as opposed to the MILF's demand for a sub-state that would have given them real political powers to govern themselves, including administering Islamic law, as well as profit from any mineral exploration of land they consider their "ancestral domain".

The government also offered them the creation of a Bangsamoro Council, a third of whose members would be assigned by Manila, as a body that would oversee the full implementation of the peace pact.

But according to Ebrahim, the document presented to them differed heavily from the MILF's own draft framework for a peace deal, which they had submitted to the government negotiating panel earlier this year.

"The [government draft] and the MILF draft are too far apart," Ebrahim said. "With this situation, we feel there is no point of discussion between the two panels."

MILF will not engage the government in official negotiations scheduled for next week, he confirmed, noting, however, that the rebels had asked the third-party facilitator in the talks, Malaysia, to intercede and help break the deadlock.

Malaysia, a member of the Organization of Islamic Conference, has been hosting the talks and leads an international monitoring mission in the southern Philippines whose presence ensures both sides do not violate a ceasefire.

Ebrahim warned that with no immediate peace deal in sight, more and more young people born into the conflict would be radicalized.

He pointed to rogue MILF rebel commander Ameril Umbra Kato, who had recently announced the creation of a splinter group that would continue to push for an independent state, which was the rebels' initial demand but dropped by Ebrahim and other rebel leaders as unrealistic.

"We want the problem to be solved within our generation, because... the younger generation can be more militant, more inclined to violence. That is why we insist that we fast-track the political solution to the problem. Then we can put in place a viable solution that will entice the next generation to toe the line of the peace process."

Already, Umbra Kato's men have engaged their former comrades in a deadly clash over land, leaving 14 dead in August and some 3,000 new IDPs in two towns in Maguindanao Province.

The new displacement is in addition to the 15,000 people still displaced from the 750,000 people forced out of their homes and villages when Umbra Kato and another rebel commander launched attacks across the south in 2008, leaving nearly 400 dead.

Deadlock dangers

Rommel Banlaoi, who heads the think-tank, Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research, said he could see "danger signs" amid the deadlock.

"Murad [Ebrahim] is trying to tell the government that if they insist on their draft in solving the conflict, then the peace process will not move forward," Rommel Banlaoi, who heads the think-tank Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research, said. "That scenario will lead to the aggravation of the situation in terms of IDPs, meaning it would lead to more people being displaced.

"This then also affects the absorptive capacity of cities and municipalities to accommodate the potential fresh wave of IDPs. That is one of the human security challenges in armed violence. That is the reality."

The MILF began its insurgency in 1978, itself splintering away from a bigger group that opted for limited autonomy. About 150,000 people have died in what is possibly one of the region's longest-running insurgencies, which has left the mineral-rich island mired in deep poverty.