ZAMBOANGA -- Peace talks between the Philippine government and Muslim separatist rebels collapsed after Manila tried to go back on an earlier agreement, rebel spokesmen said Saturday.
The separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) charged that government efforts to back down on a draft agreement, recognizing the MILF's "ancestral domain" in the southern Philippines, had led to the breakdown, preventing the resumption of formal negotiations.
Chief MILF negotiator Mohaqer Iqbal said "the talks collapsed because the government was undoing settled issues on ancestral domain."
This forced the cancellation of a meeting to resume formal talks on August 5, Iqbal said in a statement issued from Kuala Lumpur, where informal negotiations were being held.
Sources from the government and the MILF told Reuters on Saturday that Manila's negotiators tried on Friday to delay the referendum on enlarging a previous Muslim homeland until after a political agreement was reached.
That would have reneged on a previous commitment to hold the vote six months after a deal on territory was signed, originally scheduled for August 5.
Continuing peace process
Malacañang would not confirm this except to say that the ?peace process is a continuing effort.?
?In the latest talks in Kuala Lumpur over the last few days to finalize the draft agreement, there remain some differences,? Press Secretary Jesus Dureza said in a text message Saturday.
But he said that while the ?meeting did not immediately bring about progress in the ancestral domain issue, I am sure that the parties will continue to look for ways to hurdle the difficulties and move the process forward.?
MILF spokesman Eid Kabalu said in Mindanao that the government had earlier agreed on a draft agreement on ancestral domain but it has backtracked now.
He said "this is the choice of the government, to go back to the issue of ancestral domain."
?The MILF cannot be blamed on this,? he said.
"They should consider the consequences of their actions," Kabalu said, warning that the MILF leadership could not always control hardliners among the guerrillas.
Formal peace talks with the 12,000-member guerrilla group which signed a ceasefire with Manila in 2003, have stalled for months due to disagreements over what authority the MILF would exercise over areas they claim as their ancestral homeland.
The MILF has been insisting on the inclusion of at least 1,000 villages in the Bangsamoro Juridical Entity but as to where these villages are located has been kept secret.
Both sides had hoped to wrap up the talks on an ancestral homeland this week in Kuala Lumpur ahead of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo's annual state of the nation address on Monday.
About a week ago, government and MILF representatives reached a deal on the controversial "ancestral domain" issue that both sides said would lead to a resumption of formal negotiations.
More work needed
But Dureza said on Friday that a draft agreement with the MILF still needed a lot more work.
He also warned that any agreement would not be automatically implemented but would have to be enacted by law or by constitutional amendments.
Analysts say opposition among powerful Christian and Muslim families in the south and government hawks to a formal peace deal with the MILF and Arroyo's reliance on their support mean Manila's negotiating strategy is wobbly and easily thrown off course.
"Government has to get its act together," said Camilo Montesa, policy adviser at the Institute for Autonomy and Governance at Notre Dame University on the southern island of Mindanao.
"It must have a more comprehensive and coherent strategy on how to deal with the Muslim problem in the south and do away with its more tactical approach on the peace negotiations."
Not a total collapse
Rodolfo Garcia, a retired army general and Manila's chief negotiator, said on Saturday the negotiations remained open, describing it as an "impasse not a total collapse".
"We can still save it," he told Reuters.
Bishop Jose Colin Bagaforo, Auxiliary Bishop of Cotabato, was similarly optimistic.
"Let?s not be prophets of doom, the collapse is temporary,? he said.
Based on statements he has been reading, Begaforo said the breakdown pertained only to the date of the next talks and not the entire negotiations.
?It?s the date that was postponed... no hurry. Things might be for the good of all. More time to look at the documents. Both parties can give it a second look,? he said.
Bagaforo said the quest for lasting peace should continue for better life for all in Mindanao.
?Ergo, let?s not kill it with all our threats but revive again with our support and encouragement," he said.
While a deal on ancestral lands was no guarantee a final settlement to one of Southeast Asia's most intractable conflicts was in the offing, it was an important step along the way to ending violence that has killed 120,000 people since the late 1960s.
Real progress appeared to have been made when Arroyo this week supported postponing August 11 elections in the Muslim south because progress in talks with the 11,000-member MILF made a new political setup a possibility.
Some lawmakers in Manila were opposed to the postponement and complained that they did not know what had been agreed with the MILF. They said Congress was not consulted on the issue.
"Some of these people were allies of the President and their opinions and sentiments may have somewhat affected government's position," Montesa, a lawyer, told Reuters.
Cementing the MILF, which has been observing a fragile truce with the government since 2003, into a political structure in the south would unleash a wave of investment into the resource-rich island of Mindanao and boost the entire country.
The two sides have been talking, on and off, since 1997.