The Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) have edged nearer to a peace treaty after agreeing to a set of consensus points that could lead to less confrontation on the ground, officials say.
At talks in the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur, at the end of April, both sides signed a document containing "decision points on principles" that they said would open public scrutiny of any final peace deal with the 12,000-strong MILF, which has been engaged in a bloody rebellion for the past three decades on the southern island of Mindanao.
Among the 10 points in the document was consensus on creating a new autonomous political body to replace the current, often problematic, Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), comprising six provinces and two cities that is home to some 2.8 million Muslim Filipinos.
ARMM was established in 1996 to provide the predominately Muslim population with some degree of self-rule after a peace agreement between the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), a former rebel group, and Manila, with the MNFL head as its first governor.
Despite millions of dollars in government assistance and resources, the area remains mired in poverty, corruption and violence.
Other key points in the document are the strengthening of Islamic courts, “assertion” of the people's basic rights - including those of the displaced - and sharing power and wealth in the mineral-rich region.
"This agreement should serve as a memorandum for both sides of the general directions of the negotiations as we move closer to a peace agreement," Teresita Deles, the government’s chief presidential adviser on the peace talks, told IRIN.
The transparent way in which the talks were being held could avoid further confusion that could lead to a new explosion of violence, and another round of displacements in the Mindanao region, she said.
It would also serve to calm tensions on both sides, and allow greater access to humanitarian workers on the ground to help those still in dire need of assistance, Deles noted.
“This generates more goodwill - to see evidence that despite the distance between our positions, there is substantive common ground that has in fact been engendered on the table,” she said.
According to MILF chief negotiator Mohagher Iqbal, despite the consensus points, the two sides are still “worlds apart” in reaching a final agreement.
MILF remained committed to the peace talks, and to the basic principles outlined in the consensus points, he said, but pointed out that the government had previously reneged on its promises, including the doomed proposed deal signed by both sides in 2008, which would have given them control over large swathes of the area they consider as “ancestral domain”.
The deal was rejected by the Philippine Supreme Court, triggering violence and large-scale displacement. "The peace negotiations, however, are continuing, if limping," Iqbal told IRIN. He didn’t think a final peace deal would be signed in 2012.
Meanwhile, MILF fighters would abide by the truce, and an earlier agreement to help civilians caught up in the crossfire to return to their homes, he said.
Talks with the government opened in 2003 but were marred by periodic accusations of truce violations by both sides. In 2008, the MILF launched simultaneous attacks across Mindanao that left about 750,000 people displaced and nearly 400 dead on both sides.
Negotiations were resumed after President Benigno Aquino came to power in 2010, but again came close to collapsing in late 2011, when 19 Special Forces troops were killed while storming an MILF camp in the south.
The killing triggered heavy artillery reprisals from the army and the displacement of about another 30,000 people. Nonetheless, Aquino rejected widespread calls for an all-out war and ordered a return to the peace table, along with efforts to help the newly displaced.
Social Welfare Secretary Corazon Soliman said most of those displaced in 2008 and 2011 have since returned to their homes, but many were moved to camps that were vulnerable to deadly natural disasters such as flooding, but which eventually became their permanent residence.
The Department of Social Welfare and Development estimates that at the end of 2011 some 46,000 internally displaced people were living in more than 40 camps and relocation sites across Mindanao.
Many of them have refused to return home for fear of getting caught in the crossfire again, and because basic services are more accessible in the camps than in the far-flung villages they come from.