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Philippines' peace accord blocked

The Supreme Court prevented the signing of a territorial accord between the state and MILF, a rebel group, Monday. Opponents had called the deal unconstitutional.

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Deal may have good ripple effects

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For the US government, a durable peace accord would be vindication of its diplomatic and aid initiatives on Mindanao, including a decision after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the US not to designate the MILF as a terrorist group.

In February, US Ambassador Kristie Kenney traveled to Mindanao to meet the MILF's chairman. The US and other major donors have pledged to ramp up aid to sweeten any peace deal.

By crafting a compromise on historic territorial claims, the Philippines can offer a lesson for other countries such as Nepal, Indonesia, and Thailand trying to quell separatist violence, says Steven Rood, country director of the Asia Foundation. "The MILF can provide something of an example to other similar insurgency movements, and the government in Manila can provide an example to other governments trying to keep the [peace] process moving forward," he says.

Many competing interests

Adding to the complexity of the current talks, a 1996 peace deal between the Philippine government and MNLF carved out an autonomous region in Mindanao that covers four provinces.

The MILF wants to absorb that region into a new, larger jurisdiction, subject to local referendums. Some former MNLF leaders have objected to the dilution of their power base.

The MILF claims 712 additional districts on behalf of the Bangsamoro people. Christian politicians object to the creation of these autonomous districts within their provinces.

In recent months, low-level violence has flared in MILF strongholds. MILF leaders deny sanctioning attacks on civilians but warned of rising frustrations within their ranks. That's a pressure tactic the MILF often uses, analysts say.

"The prospect of a return to full-scale war is fairly remote. Neither side can sustain it," says Scott Harrison, executive director of Pacific Strategies and Assessments, a consultancy in Manila.

The peace talks come as Mindanao gears up for elections on Aug. 11 in the existing autonomous region known as the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).

Last week, Ms. Arroyo asked lawmakers to postpone the elections, but met stiff opposition in the Senate. The administration said electing ARMM officials to three-year terms would complicate the creation of a new jurisdiction. MILF leaders have played down the impact on their peace talks.

Separately, Arroyo's opponents in Congress claim that amending the Constitution to cement an MILF peace accord could be used to also extend the president's term that ends in 2010.

The Philippines only allows presidents to hold office for one six-year term. Arroyo took power in 2001 after President Joseph Estrada was forced to step down, then won an election in 2004 that was dogged by fraud complaints.