Last month, peace talks to bring an end to four decades of Islamist insurgency in the southern Philippines resumed, with both the government and the main secessionist group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), making optimistic pronouncements about this round of talks. But many are less hopeful, noting the negotiations' wearying start-and-stop trend.

Indeed, one of the biggest potential breakthroughs to a final peace accord collapsed in August 2008, when the Philippine government suddenly scrapped plans to sign a draft agreement that would have expanded an autonomous Muslim region on Mindanao island, the largest in the southern Philippines. Working groups from both the government and the MILF had initialed the pact, called the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain, but just before the formal signing, politicians in Christian-dominated provinces on Mindanao successfully petitioned the Supreme Court of the Philippines in protest. The fallout from the collapse of the MOA-AD was devastating. MILF units in Mindanao retaliated by attacking Christian towns and villages in Lanao del Norte, a province bordering the Muslim areas of the south. In response, the Philippine military launched a strong offensive against these units. More than 700,000 civilians were displaced in fighting that lasted several months. 

The situation is still tense. Just days before the talks resumed in Kuala Lumpur on December 8, 2009, Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo imposed a brief period of martial law in Maguindanao, one of the Muslim provinces on Mindanao, after 57 civilians, including 30 journalists, were massacred there. The killings were rooted in a rivalry between two Muslim clans, not in the Muslim insurgency. But they exposed just how fragile security remains in this volatile corner of the Philippines and reminded officials of the urgency of getting the peace process with the MILF back on track.

Although the MOA-AD is defunct, the territorial issues it dealt with will need to be resolved in the current round of talks. Muslims make up only 20 percent of Mindanao's population of 22 million, but they continue to view the region as their ancestral domain. In fact, the government resettled large numbers of Christians to Mindanao from the more densely populated northern and central islands during the first half of the twentieth century. Some Muslims still refer to the Christian population as "settlers."

To deal with these issues, the MOA-AD would not only have expanded the autonomous Muslim region but also created a self-governing homeland, or Bangsamoro, which would have included more than 700 Muslim-majority barangays (Philippine community units that can range in size from small villages to towns with thousands of households). The Bangsamoro plan would have formally recognized Muslim self-governance. But contentiously, the MOA-AD listed 1,500 mixed Muslim-Christian barangays, which would hold referendums on future inclusion in the homeland after 25 years. Local Christian politicians, fearing the loss of their constituencies if the mixed barangays became part of the Muslim homeland, raised a commotion when they found out about the stipulation at the last minute and the Supreme Court stepped in.

To make progress in the restarted talks, the MILF may have to drop its claim to these mixed areas. And to avoid another breakdown in the process, the new round of talks will have to overcome the MOA-AD's failure "to conduct public consultation and inform the people about developments in the peace talks," Rudy Rodil, a Mindanao historian and former member of the government's peace panel, told me.

Reassuringly, the government has promised transparency. A couple of weeks before the negotiations resumed, Annabelle Abaya, the presidential adviser on the peace process acknowledged: "We have learned the lesson of keeping things quiet; so when ideas gel [during the negotiations] we will bring them to the people."

The government has also said that this round will include public consultations with all stakeholders, including the Christian majority, Mindanao's elite political families from both faiths, and the region's indigenous people, called lumads, who also aspire to self-determination. Additionally, the new talks will aim to conclude a "comprehensive compact" on a range of issues -- including territory, governance, resource sharing, and the application of sharia law -- rather than incremental agreements on these issues to be used in a final peace accord.

Both the MILF and the government exchanged their draft peace agreements in Kuala Lumpur on January 27th. But according to Rafael Seguis, who heads the government's working group on the peace talks, "There is no agreement yet. Both sides are still in the early stages of discussing each other's position papers." Without disclosing its contents, Seguis noted that the government's draft complied with the Philippine Constitution and included some proposed legislative action to strengthen regional autonomy. Speaking a few weeks before the drafts were exchanged, the MILF's chief negotiator, Mohagher Iqbal, said that he expected wide differences between the two drafts. And at a news conference in Kuala Lumpur last month, he stated that although the rebels do not want war, they would not accept an "imposed or half-baked solution." It is unclear whether the MILF's chairman, Al Haj Murad, will be able to control the group's spoilers if talks stall again. The rampage in Lanao del Norte represented an alarming break in the MILF's chain of command; the group's leadership strenuously denies that it was behind the attacks.

The MILF's generally moderate leadership cut ties with extremist Islamist groups several years ago, when it ordered operatives from the Southeast Asian terror network Jemaah Islamiyah from its camps and strongholds in Mindanao as part of the peace process. Yet extremist MILF elements continue to harass government forces, and some rogue MILF guerrillas have close ties to the local terror group Abu Sayyaf. Just five days after negotiations resumed, gunmen stormed a poorly guarded jail on the far-southern island of Basilan to free Muslim militants, including a MILF commander who faces multiple murder charges for beheading Philippine marines in an ambush.

At the same time, the MILF has sought better relations with the United States and the West. The first meeting between the MILF and the United States occurred in early 2008, when Washington's ambassador to Manila, Kristie Kenney, met Murad at the MILF's main camp. At that meeting, she urged the MILF to restart peace talks. For its part, Washington is eager to see stability in the Muslim areas of the southern Philippines. Since 2001, U.S. special forces have loaned noncombat support to counterterrorism operations against the Abu Sayyaf in a group of islands of the coast of mainland Mindanao and have aided development and humanitarian projects there. 

The participation of the international community in the resumed talks is a welcome development. A contact group -- comprised of representatives from Britain, Japan, and Turkey, as well as such nongovernmental organizations as the U.S.-based Asia Foundation -- was created to help both sides strike a final deal. The decision to reinstate a team of Malaysian-led international cease-fire monitors and the Ad Hoc Joint Action Group -- a crucial peacekeeping tool that assists security forces during counterterrorist operations -- in the early stages of negotiation was also promising.

"That the talks have restarted is clearly a good sign," Julkipli Wadi, a professor at the University of the Philippines' Institute of Islamic Studies, told me. But the peace process -- begun 35 years ago -- has moved, he said, at a "snail's pace." The hope of some officials that an accord can be reached prior to Arroyo stepping down after elections in May seems overly optimistic. Even so, some valuable headway may yet be made for the next administration.

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