Negotiators from the Philippines government and the country's largest Muslim insurgent group - the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) - are set to resume formal peace talks amid worries over MILF’s ability to rein in hardliners in its ranks.
The talks will begin on 9 February in Kuala Lumpur.
Chief government negotiator Marvic Leonen said the rebels were expected to submit a draft “comprehensive compact” aimed at ending the MILF's 33-year rebellion and spelling out its demands.
The MILF, which has about 12,000 fighters, has been fighting for the creation of an independent Islamic state on the southern island of Mindanao, but has recently said it is willing to drop its separatist bid in favour of an expanded form of autonomy for areas it says are part of its ancestral domain.
"In my view, if the MILF remains sincere and is open to being pragmatic, but at the same time principled in its stance, one year is a reasonable period to come to a fundamental agreement on a politically negotiated settlement," Leonen told IRIN.
"We are cautious, however, not to state deadlines in terms of periods or numbers of meetings. The realities of political negotiations and unforeseen events should allow the negotiating parties some room to adjust and accommodate," he said.
Government “seriously concerned”
However, he said the government viewed with apprehension an admission by MILF leader Murad Ebrahim that one of his top commanders, Ameril Umbrakato, had formed his own armed unit composed of hardliners who were against the peace talks.
“The government is seriously concerned about this development," Leonen said, adding that the MILF negotiating panel had promised to clarify the situation during the talks.
The splinter group could lead to overall insecurity for civilians in Mindanao, as well as undermine the leadership of Ebrahim, he said.
Talking to reporters during a clandestine meeting at a MILF camp on Mindanao on 5 February, to which only a handful of journalists were invited, Ebrahim said recent consultations with rebel members showed that about 10 percent were against the talks.
Frustration about the slow pace of negotiations was also apparent, with many questioning the sincerity of President Benigno Aquino, who upon assuming office last year vowed to end the insurgency through peaceful means by the time his six-year term expires in 2016.
Ebrahim insisted, however, that he remained in control of the entire rebel force.
"The MILF is solid. The leadership has complete control over all the men both in the political and military wings of the movement," he said.
Umbrakato, who is believed to be in his 70s, is said to be among the toughest hardliners in the MILF.
In 2008 he and another commander, Abdulrahman Macapaar, launched a series of raids on mostly Christian communities in Mindanao, leaving nearly 400 dead and displacing over 750,000 for months.
The attacks were in retaliation for a Supreme Court rejection of a proposed deal that would have given the MILF political and economic control over 700 villages and towns they claim as part of their ancestral heritage.
Most of the displaced have since returned to their homes or were relocated, although various humanitarian agencies say about 60,000 remain displaced.
Security analysts and at least one senior military official have warned that Umbrakato's Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters - believed to number over 1,000 - could cause trouble, but not enough to erode the peace process.
“Right now, it does not constitute a serious threat either to the peace process as a whole or to Ebrahim’s leadership," Sidney Jones, senior adviser for Asia programmes for the International Crisis Group, told IRIN.
Ebrahim’s open admission of the internal rift also proved the MILF leadership was open and ready to negotiate in a transparent manner, she said.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
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