(Adds quotes from government negotiator, details)
By Raju Gopalakrishnan
CAMP DARAPANAN, Philippines, March 10 The Philippines has offered Muslims in the south the right of self-determination, a move the head of the country's largest Islamic rebel group said on Saturday was a breakthrough.
Talks between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) to end one of the world's longest-running Muslim insurgencies have been stalled since September, but there have been informal contacts.
At one such meeting in December, the government panel offered to recognise the right of the Moros, the Muslims in the south, to self-determination, which it has never done in over three decades of conflict and intermittent negotiations.
"It can be a breakthrough," MILF (MILF) Chairman Al Haj Murad told reporters in his camp in the jungles of Mindanao in the southern Philippines. "We appreciate this development, we feel it is an advancement in the search for peace in Mindanao."
At least 125,000 have been killed in the Muslim insurgency in Mindanao, the richest part of the country in terms of untapped natural resources, but otherwise the most impoverished.
Most of the Roman Catholic country's roughly 5 million Muslims live here, out of a total population of 87 million.
"It is a breakthrough, it is a break away from the past," Rudy Rodil, a history professor who is on the government peace panel, told reporters in nearby Cotabato City. "I don't see how much farther we can go."
The proposal has still to be discussed in formal talks, but both sides said these could take place within weeks, most likely in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
According to Rodil, the proposal would allow an autonomous Muslim state self-governance in all areas except defence, foreign affairs, the monetary system and the postal system.
"They will have to remain in the Philippines," he said. "We are not authorised to divide the country."
A government peace deal in 1996 with the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), the country's oldest Muslim rebel group, did not go as far, although it did create a special region for Muslims, the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).
But the MNLF has split into various factions, and the 1996 deal is widely seen as ineffective.
"The experience of the MNLF is already enough," said Murad, the MILF chief, adding that his negotiating team would nail down as many details and commitments from the government as possible.
Rodil said the new offer was made based on an article in the constitution that enshrines international law as the law of the land. Since the Philippines is a signatory to an international agreement on recognising the right of indigenous groups to self-determination, it could make the offer.
But both sides said several hurdles remained before an agreement could be hammered out.
The MILF wants an expansion of the ARMM to include other Muslim-majority areas in the south, and the two sides are at odds over the number of villages to be included and contiguity.
Furthermore, some parts of the proposal may have to be approved by the Philippine Congress, while the MILF will have to win over the MNLF and local Muslim clan leaders.
They will also have to ensure that intermittent clashes do not scuttle any deal. In one of the worst bouts of violence in recent months, at least 20 people were killed in a gunbattle between troops and MILF supporters near Cotabato City this week.
Murad, a mild-looking former civil engineer who was the former military chief of the rebels, said a return to armed struggle was unlikely.
"We know that we cannot do this overnight, we have to thrash out all the problems," he said. "As long as it is moving, we are willing to continue the peace process."