By Manny Mogato (Reuters)
MANILA–The Philippines’ largest Islamic rebel group recently announced it doubted whether a peace deal could be signed this year due to difficulties in agreeing the size and wealth of a proposed Muslim homeland.
The government had hoped to strike a deal for a homeland for 3 million Muslims on the southern island of Mindanao by mid-September but talks have dragged over how much territory to sign over and how to split the region’s rich resources.
“The September timeline for signing a peace deal with the Philippine government is not a very promising proposition,” said Jun Mantawil, head of the Muslim rebels’ peace panel secretariat.
“Our movement forward is very modest. The situation of the talks get tougher and tougher as we proceed toward the final stretch.”
Since 1997, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the biggest of four Muslim rebel groups, has been negotiating with Manila to end 40 years of conflict that has killed more than 120,000 people and stunted development.
The island of Mindanao is one of the poorest areas in the Philippines despite having reserves of copper, gold and oil.
An undeveloped gold-copper field, estimated by Australian firm Indophil to be Southeast Asia’s largest with potential yearly export earnings of $700 million, is located in an area claimed by Muslims and a local tribe on Mindanao.
In February, the government’s chief negotiator, Silvestre Afable, said the two sides might be able to strike a deal before the start of the Muslims’ holy month of Ramadan in mid-September after a breakthrough in talks on ancestral domain.
In meetings in Malaysia this week, Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Alberto Romulo told reporters Manila was expecting to sign a final peace deal with the MILF even before Ramadan as the two sides wrap up talks on ancestral domain.
But, the MILF said it did not want to raise false expectations the two sides could meet the September deadline.
Last week, a member of the Philippine government’s peace panel also told Reuters there could be delays in inking a deal.
“We may overshoot our initial target due to the nature of the issues at hand,” said the senior official, who declined to be named because of his involvement in the talks.