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Philippines peace talks regain traction after lengthy hiatus

The Philippines’ peace talks with the largest insurgency group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, have shown staying power since resuming last month after folding in 2008.

By Correspondent / January 26, 2010

Cotabato, Philippines

The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the largest insurgency group in the Philippines, is giving jaw-jaw another shot.

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The peace talks, which resumed last month, are up against a tough political deadline, as President Gloria Arroyo prepares to step down in July. Observers say the two sides must also grapple with the fallout from a controversial 2008 territorial agreement that the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional, sparking fierce clashes in central Mindanao that displaced hundreds of thousands of civilians.

Yet for all that, the talks hold out hope of a powersharing deal on the troubled island.

The latest cease-fire between the MILF and the Philippine government, signed last July, appears to be holding. A Malaysian-led monitoring team is expected to return as early as next month and will have an additional mandate to protect civilians while also watching for violations of the truce. For its part, the government has agreed not to pursue three MILF commanders who led the 2008 attacks and face criminal charges.

Ms. Arroyo has vowed to push for a final peace accord with the MILF that would be a legacy for her presidency, which began in 2001. Western diplomats and peace activists say this timetable for negotiations – begun in 2002 – is overly ambitious, given the divisions between negotiators on critical issues. “That would be fine for an administration that has time to go through all the steps. But this administration doesn’t,” says a Western diplomat in Manila.

A more likely outcome is a peace process that leaves the heavy lifting on constitutional issues to the next administration. The elections will be held in May. So far, the presidential front-runners have offered few specifics on Mindanao, though former president Joseph Estrada has vowed a return to anti-MILF military operations if he’s elected, an outcome that most analysts discount.

Inviting outside observers

One innovation in the revived talks is the formation of an international contact group to observe and advise the two sides. The group brings together Britain, Japan, Turkey, and four nongovernmental organizations, providing a degree of continuity and persuasion, though its scope is limited.