July 8, 2007 / 8:23 AM / 13 years ago

Rebels worry over delays in talks with Philippines

MANILA (Reuters) - Social and economic development of Muslim communities on the southern Philippines island of Mindanao are not enough to solve a decades-old insurgency there, a rebel leader said on Sunday.

Mohaqher Iqbal, the rebels’ chief peace negotiator, warned the development projects in conflict-affected areas could even become a weapon against the rebels if negotiations on a political settlement were not speeded up.

“If the substantive phase of the current negotiations would not move forward, we would be suspecting these projects could be part of the government’s classic counter-insurgency strategy,” Iqbal told Reuters in an interview.

Iqbal, who also sits on the seven-member executive jihad council of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), said the group was getting worried over delays in the resumption of talks with the government, and doubts were increasing about Manila’s sincerity in forging a peace deal.

Many MILF field commanders were growing impatient because the government has been taking advantage of the ceasefire to carry out millions of dollars worth of development projects to win over Muslim communities, he added.

The commanders suspected it was part of a government strategy to erode public support for the insurgency, Iqbal said.

Since late last year, about $3 million to $5 million worth of development projects have been implemented by the World Bank, Japan, Canada, the United States and the European Union in the conflict-affected areas on Mindanao.

DEVELOPMENT

Over $50 million in social and economic projects have been pledged once the two sides sign a deal to end the conflict that has killed more than 120,000 people and displaced 2 million.

“There must be, first, an enduring political solution for these projects to really change the lives of ordinary Muslims in the south,” Iqbal said.

Negotiations, brokered by Malaysia since 2001, stalled in September over the size and wealth of a proposed ancestral homeland for 3 million Muslims on Mindanao.

Informal meetings, however, continued to seek ways for both sides to reach a deal on the issue of territories to be covered by the proposed homeland.

In December 2006, the two sides said there was a breakthrough when Manila allowed the rebels to peek into a “new formula” that would be formally offered when talks resume, recognising Muslims’ right to a substantial degree of autonomy.

The two sides were all set to resume talks on May 1-2 in Kuala Lumpur but Manila asked for a postponement due to congressional and local elections that month.

A month later, the government’s chief negotiator resigned, causing further delay in the resumption of talks.

Iqbal warned more postponement would adversely affect the talks, eroding the trust and confidence of both sides.

On Friday, the government’s new chief negotiator, retired general Rodolfo Garcia, told Reuters the government would want to resume negotiations early next month as soon as some minor technical problems are resolved.

“We have no problems with the government’s negotiators,” Iqbal said. “But, these people are just drivers. If the owners of the truck would not want them to go, how can we reach our destination?”

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