The Philippine government and the country's largest Muslim separatist group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), have agreed to facilitate the return of tens of thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs); aid workers hope this could be the harbinger of a lasting peace deal.
The agreement, concluded after talks in Kuala Lumpur on 22 April, comes amid independent reports that fighting all but stopped in parts of southern Mindanao island after a Malaysian-led International Monitoring Team (IMT) returned in February to help implement a ceasefire agreed last year.
Foreign Undersecretary Rafael Seguis, the government's chief negotiator with the 12,000-strong MILF, said both sides appeared to be moving towards sealing a "comprehensive compact" soon, though rebel leaders have told IRIN previously they would be unlikely to strike a deal with President Gloria Arroyo, whose stormy six-year term is set to end in June.
"Both parties agreed to work together for the swift return of the remaining lDPs in conflict-affected areas in Mindanao," Seguis said in a statement on 22 April.
The Coordinating Committee on the Cessation of Hostilities (CCCH) - established in 2003 - has been tasked by both side to "ensure the safety and security of returning evacuees by accompanying them to their respective areas of origin, in close coordination with local government units concerned, the lMT, and other concerned agencies."
The CCCH is comprised of members from both sides of the conflict, as well as neutral parties, whose job it is to resolve complaints over truce violations so that small firefights do not escalate.
100,000 in evacuation centres
Of those displaced today, Seguis said some 100,000 remain in evacuation centres. People from these centres would be escorted back to their villages to rebuild and start anew.
We want to know how these people will be protected.
We cannot just encourage them to return when they don't feel secure in
the areas where they will go back to
Since the return of the IMT in February 2010, there have been only three complaints of truce violations which were all amicably settled, according to CCCH. It said that between 2008 and 2009 there was a "quantum leap of violations", a trend that is slowly being reversed.
"The turnaround of incidents of ceasefire violations from very high to very low is attributed to the good cooperation and teamwork between the government, MILF and CCCH in cooperation with civil society organizations," CCCH said.
Arroyo's spokesman, Gary Olivar, said the agreement had renewed hope that the rebels were now becoming more receptive to crafting a peace deal. However, he flatly rejected the possibility of reviving the 2008 deal that was declared unconstitutional.
"By itself, that action already has a lot of value. Going beyond that kind of action hopefully indicates willingness to see the peace process through from their side," Olivar told IRIN. "The president still wants to sign a peace deal with the MILF, but the public pronouncements of their leaders indicate that they prefer to work with the next administration."
In 2003, Manila opened peace negotiations with the MILF in the hope of ending the group's 32-year war for an independent Muslim state on Mindanao - talks which have been rocky and often punctuated by violence.
Large-scale fighting broke out in late 2008 after the Supreme Court deemed unconstitutional a proposed deal that would have granted the insurgents political and economic control over 700 towns and villages on the island they claim as their ancestral domain, including areas heavily populated by Christians.
The document was initialled by both sides but national groups backed by Christian leaders raised the issue with the court, leading to the ruling.
In the fighting that ensured, over 750,000 people were displaced, leaving nearly 400 dead and many more injured.
In July of 2009 back-door negotiations resumed in a bid to solve the tattered peace process.
Photo: Jason Gutierrez/IRIN
|Many schools double as evacuation centres|
Red Cross concerns
Meanwhile, the Red Cross welcomed the latest news, but stressed that beyond allowing the IDPs to return safely, the government must ensure that they get adequate support to re-start their disrupted lives.
"It is a very positive development, but on the other hand, we want to know how these people will be protected. We cannot just encourage them to return when they don't feel secure in the areas where they will go back to," Gwendolyn Pang, secretary-general of the Philippine National Red Cross, told IRIN. "What will be the plan now, because we cannot force them to return?" she asked.
Families "should be able to feel safe, and assured that when they go back, they have livelihoods and basic infrastructure like schools, and health centres that will meet their needs," she said.