MANILA, Philippines?One word??freedom??did it.
The Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) Wednesday reached a deal to create an ancestral homeland for three million Muslims in Mindanao, officials said.
The agreement, while crucial for the resumption of formal peace talks, does not guarantee the end of a near 40-year conflict that has killed 120,000 people and displaced two million in Mindanao.
?We have finally settled all the remaining issues on ancestral domain,? Mohaqher Iqbal, chief MILF negotiator, told Reuters at the end of a one-day informal meeting brokered by the Malaysian government.
?It was a tough meeting. The real battle will be fought on the next level when we start talks on the political formula to end the conflict. But, at least we have hurdled the ancestral domain issue. We can now return to formal negotiations.?
Rodolfo Garcia, the head of the government?s peace panel, said: ?Praise God. It?s over.?
Garcia began holding two days of informal discussions with MILF officials in Kuala Lumpur, which has been hosting the talks.
Dropping the F-word
"This is a breakthrough," Presidential adviser on the peace process Hermogenes Esperon said after both government and MILF panels agreed to ?drop? the word freedom from the draft agreement on ancestral domain.
?The word ?freedom? was dropped and both panels settled to stick to the phrase ?aspiration of the Bangsamoro People,?? Esperon said.
In the earlier wording of the agreement, the MILF had sought to ?permanently address the aspirations of the Bangsamoro for freedom.?
Esperon said the draft agreement will now read as follows: "The recognition and peaceful resolution of the conflict must involve consultations with the Bangsamoro people free of any imposition in order to provide chances of success and open new formulas that permanently respond to the aspirations of the Bangsamoro people."
Esperon told Agence France-Presse that through the informal discussions, "we have resolved several differences, especially those pertaining to the ancestral domain issue."
He said this included "the jurisdiction and control of the natural resources" of the areas to be considered the ancestral domain.
MILF spokesperson Eid Kabalu said they have yet to get a copy of the agreement, but expressed optimism that this would pave the way for ?either resumption of the exploratory talks or formal negotiations.?
Kabalu said the dropping of the word ?freedom? would mean that the negotiations, and any agreement that would be signed in the future, would focus on the Bangsamoro People?s aspiration for self-determination, and not by what government thinks is freedom for our people.?
Manila in exchange agreed to include a provision for a timeline for the implementation of the accord, including the holding of plebiscites in the 712 villages to be included in the proposed Bangsamoro homeland early next year, Esperon said.
Esperon said the agreement was reached at 6 p.m. Wednesday and signed by Iqbal and Garcia.
?Both panels will meet again on July 24 in Kuala Lumpur to fix a date on when the two sides will meet to sign the memorandum of agreement on ancestral domain,? Esperon said.
Negotiations with the 11,000-member MILF, which signed a ceasefire with the government in 2003, have stalled for months due to disagreements over what authority the MILF would exercise over Muslim-populated areas they claim as their ancestral homeland.
Despite the ceasefire, sporadic clashes between the government and MILF forces have occurred in Mindanao, leaving the southern third of the predominantly Roman Catholic country mired in poverty.
The government and the MILF have been talking for more than a decade on how to give Muslims in the south a greater degree of self-rule and it took the two sides nearly four years to reach this agreement on expanding the coverage of an existing autonomous region for the minority group.
The MILF has been pushing for the setting up of the Bangsamoro Juridical Entity, a stronger autonomous Muslim territory that would cover the areas stated in the Tripoli agreement forged in the ?70s. However, the government is insisting that any expansion of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao should be subject to plebiscite.
Muhammad Ameen, chair of the MILF secretariat, said the issue of ancestral domain remains the stickiest of issues in the peace talks.
He said it was preventing the discussion of other issues as the MILF wanted it settled first before other topics can be taken up.
Many in the Philippines are skeptical about a speedy final resolution to one of Southeast Asia?s most intractable conflicts, but the government reiterated its optimistic stance.
?We are happy that the talks are finally moving forward,? Esperon told Reuters in Manila after he was informed of the breakthrough.
?We are very positive that we could meet an earlier deadline to wrap up talks and sign a final peace deal with the MILF by next year.?
Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita said this development could pave the way for the resumption of talks, and finally the signing of a peace agreement.
President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo had been informed of the development and was "very happy. She is elated," Esperon said.
Although Ms Arroyo has repeatedly said she wants peace, hawks in her Cabinet are opposed to giving large swathes of land to Muslims and politically powerful Christian clans in Mindanao would certainly oppose a final deal.
Extend peace monitors
Iqbal said the two sides would now discuss ways to expand and extend the mandate of the 60 unarmed peace monitors from Brunei, Japan, Libya and Malaysia who have been deployed in Mindanao since October 2004.
Manila has been under pressure to reach a peace settlement to undercut support by some MILF elements to Muslim militants linked to Jemaah Islamiyah, which has been blamed for deadly attacks across Southeast Asia. With reports from Jeoffrey Maitem, Inquirer Mindanao; Reuters and Agence France-Presse