MANILA, PHILIPPINES — Seven months into a nervous cease-fire on the troubled island of Mindanao, government negotiators are desperately hoping for a breakthrough when they sit down to exploratory peace talks later this month in Malaysia.
On the other side of the table will be representatives of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which has battled since 1978 against Manila's rule. And lurking in the shadows will be a history of false starts and broken pledges that make many observers fearful of a return to all-out war in Mindanao. The talks are due to run Feb. 16-17 in Kuala Lumpur.
The stakes are high, and not just for those caught in the immediate crossfire. Foreign governments accuse the MILF of helping Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), a pan-Asian terrorist group, to regroup in Mindanao after crackdowns in Indonesia and other countries. Regional leaders, including Australian Prime Minister John Howard this week, have warned that JI remains a threat.
In recent months, Manila has pursued a twin strategy of talking peace in Mindanao and demanding cooperation in tackling JI. Officials have accused rebels of shielding terrorist training camps run mostly by Indonesians.
"The government will not allow the peace process to stand in the way of the overriding fight against terrorism," warned President Gloria Arroyo in December.
MILF leaders deny harboring terror suspects and blame Army hawks for trying to spike the peace process. But analysts and diplomats say it's doubtful that JI could operate in Mindanao without cooperation from rebel commanders, if not the political leadership. Some suspect that the MILF is trying to extract a better deal from Manila by playing host to JI members, with whom they have longstanding ideological and familial ties.
"The JI presence is a very valuable bargaining chip. It goes beyond Mindanao: It's a regional security issue," says Anthony Davis withJane's Defence Group.
Mr. Davis and other analysts say the MILF has shown it can keep a lid on the violence when it sees an advantage.
They point to the absence of major attacks in Mindanao since the July cease-fire. In previous months, the Philippines had been rocked by a string of attacks that were among the bloodiest in years, including a March 4 bombing at Davao Airport that killed 21 people, including an American missionary.
Several suspects were arrested after that attack and criminal charges filed against MILF officials for their alleged involvement. But the Philippine government has agreed to put the case on hold while peace talks proceed in Malaysia. The MILF, which denies any role in the violence, had feared its negotiators could be arrested during or after the talks.
Government negotiators say the Philippine Army has also agreed to pull back from a former MILF stronghold, another key precondition for talks. A third precondition - to invite cease-fire monitors from Malaysia, Brunei, and Libya - is likely to follow.
Domestic opponents of President Arroyo say she is caving in to rebel demands in order to cut a quick deal ahead of a tough reelection vote due May 10. But negotiators say they need to be flexible in looking for a long-term political settlement in Mindanao.
They argue that by making concessions, the Philippines is giving the MILF leadership an olive branch that it can use to isolate those opposed to the peace process.
Eventually, they say, this could weaken the grip of the foreign groups, provided local sympathizers see a political windfall on the way.
"People in Mindanao don't necessarily like these characters in their community.... They realize it has a bearing on the chance of peace," says Silvestre Afable, chief government negotiator. But, he adds, extracting foreign-born radicals won't be easy. "You've had three generations of Indonesians coming and marrying into the community."
Rebel leaders in Mindanao have already shown signs of cooperation, according to Mr. Afable and other negotiators. They cite the arrest by Philippine police last October of Taufek Refke, an Indonesian accused of training JI members to use explosives. Mr. Refke was seized from a hotel in Cotabato after MILF commanders agreed to withdraw from the area, says Afable. Police later raided a house in Cotabato and recovered manuals on bombmaking and biological weapons, as well as explosives equipment.
US specialists reportedly helped to analyze evidence seized in Cotabato, reflecting ongoing US concern over terrorist cells in the southern Philippines. In 2002, US troops were deployed as trainers on a neighboring island to help battle another radical group, the Abu Sayyaf. But when the US proposed sending combat troops last year to widen the hunt, some Filipinos objected and the idea was shelved.
While diplomats in Manila downplay the likelihood of an imminent American deployment, given the situation in Iraq and other fronts, other observers say Washington hasn't forgotten about the Philippine threat.
Zachary Abuza, professor at Simmons College in Boston and author of "Militant Islam in Southeast Asia," says the two governments are quietly rethinking how to bring US troops into the picture if the peace process fails. "They are looking at some creative terms of reference [for US troops]. I know the US military would definitely like to go back," says Mr. Abuza, who recently visited the Philippines.