Philippines: Breakthrough in talks between government and Muslim rebels

The International Contact Group (ICG) will consist of representatives from the Organisation of Islamic Conference and the European Union, who will "facilitate" formal negotiations between the two sides on the ground, Manila's chief peace negotiator, said.
Aid workers have welcomed a breakthrough in discussions between the Philippine government and Muslim rebels on the island of Mindanao, after the two sides agreed to a panel of international peace brokers for the resumption of stalled peace talks. Manila's chief peace negotiator, Avelino Razon, told IRIN on 16 September: "This is a major breakthrough. The ICG will be composed of representatives who will be sitting with us at the table when we resume talks".
"They will assist the panels in arriving at a final peace agreement. They will be facilitators for the talks. The talks will resume after Ramadan, but we are just awaiting the specific date from Malaysia, which is hosting the talks," he said.

Muslims in the Philippines will celebrate Eid al-Fitr on 21 September, marking the end of Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Both sides also agreed to keep to their respective ceasefires declared in July - a development which aid agencies and analysts say could create a bigger humanitarian space for thousands of people still displaced in southern Mindanao island by more than a year of fighting between troops and the 12,000-strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

Humanitarian actors on the ground said they hoped it would allow internally displaced persons (IDPs) to begin permanently returning to their homes.

"This is definitely something we've been hoping for and what the IDPs on the ground are hoping for," said Lan Mercado, the Philippine director for UK charity Oxfam, which has been helping out in the relief effort.

She said the agency hoped that the resumption of talks could also lead to "better access" to IDPs, with the presence of the third-party facilitators expected to lead to a further cessation of hostilities.

However, Mercado said the government should move beyond "general statements" and offer a more concrete plan of action which would cover long-term goals of sustaining livelihoods, once the situation began to normalize.

"These people have been suffering a further erosion of their productive assets, because to start with, they were already poor when the fighting began," she said.

"While access to [the] displaced is always a challenge and could be limiting, there should also be support for the restoration of their livelihoods."

Stephen Anderson, country director for the World Food Programme in the Philippines, said the breakthrough was a "positive development", especially in conjunction with the July ceasefire.

Praise for July ceasefire

"The ceasefire declared at the end of July has contributed significantly to improved access and also allows the possibility of planning the returns of a number of IDPs," he said.

Representatives from the government and the MILF agreed on 15 September to the ICG after intense and difficult negotiations in Kuala Lumpur.

The MILF had demanded the creation of the panel as a condition for returning to the peace table, arguing that a third entity witnessing any agreements made could ensure that the government followed through on future promises.

The peace talks were suspended last year, when two MILF commanders broke a five-year-old ceasefire and launched simultaneous attacks across Mindanao.

The attacks were a response to a Supreme Court decision to outlaw a proposed deal that would have given the MILF control over more than 700 towns and villages they consider their "ancestral domain".

The deal had already been signed by both sides when politicians from Christian areas in Mindanao launched a legal challenge, and warned that many civilians had armed themselves for possible violence if their land fell under Muslim control.

The government has said that it has been facilitating the return of IDPs. In its last report tracking the IDPs, the National Disaster Coordinating Council in Manila said 254,119 people remained displaced, with 118,907 of them still in 147 evacuation centres as of 7 July.

Source: IRIN