Government and separatist negotiators had settled about 80% of issues relating to "ancestral domain", or the minority's right to profit from the resources of their traditional area, Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) leader Murad Ebrahim said on Tuesday.


Murad told about 100,000 supporters that "just, honourable and lasting peace is partly at hand", as the rebels prepared to enter an important round of peace talks with the government.

He said Malaysian-brokered negotiations, supported by a two-year ceasefire, show that "seemingly irreconcilable issues" can be solved as long as both sides approach the peace process with "an open mind and sincerity".


"The MILF and the government are in the final stretch of their peace talks," Murad said at Camp Darapanan outside Cotabato at the end of three days of consultations with tens of thousands of MILF members.


Rekindled hopes

"After decades of unrelenting struggle, our flickering hope for a just and comprehensive political solution ... is rekindled," Murad said from a stage flanked by cornfields and coconut plantations.

 

MILF supporters were told a
political solution was possible 

"Except for governance, only some minor unresolved issues on the three strands of ancestral domain - concept, territory and resources - remained to be discussed by the parties."

 

Murad added without elaborating: "I am very hopeful they will get past these issues."


At a meeting in Malaysia in April, the two sides made progress on resolving territorial rights claims - the first tangible result in years of negotiations.

Another round of talks is scheduled for June.

New formula

MILF spokesman Eid Kabalu said the three-day open assembly, which ends on Tuesday, aims to devise a "new formula" to address long-standing grievances of Filipino Muslims, who have accused the government of discrmination and of economic isolation.

"Obviously, the present formula - autonomy - is not working," Kabalu said.

"None of these formulas implemented in the past have solved the problems of our people," MILF vice chairman for political affairs, Ghazali Jaafar, said, likening such solutions to trying to cure the sick with the wrong medicine.

"The more he takes the pill, the more his illness gets worse"

Ghazali Jaafar,
MILF Vice Chairman

"The more he takes the pill, the more his illness gets worse," Kabalu told the gathering also attended by foreign dignitaries and officials.

Federal approach


Kabalu said MILF was open to various proposals, including a federal approach with less centralised government control.


The government has indicated it would consider expanding an autonomous region beyond the Autonomous Region in Mindanao, which was created as a result of a 1996 peace agreement with a former separatist group, the Moro National Liberation Front.


MILF veterans broke away from the MNLF because they were unhappy with the existing arrangements.

Murad stressed that the MILF would not settle for autonomy status and fall into the same trap as the MNLF, from which it split in 1978.


The 12,000-member MILF, founded in 1978, is the last major Muslim separatist group in Mindanao, a resource-rich but troubled region about twice the size of Belgium.

Peace treaty

The next round of peace talks
with MILF is to be held in June

Manila signed a peace treaty with another faction, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), in 1996.  

Opting for limited self-rule, the MNLF dropped its independence bid in 1996.

An autonomous region was created, made up of five Muslim-majority provinces, but the area remains mired in poverty due to government neglect and high levels of corruption, discouraging investments. 
 

Murad said the MILF was studying "varied formulas that can be implemented" in terms of governance, including models patterned after the UN-supervised referendum in East Timor that eventually led to its independence from Indonesia.


Possible referendum
 

"We can see experiences of some peoples in the world with similar problems as that of the Bangsamoro (Moro nation)," Murad said. "This would serve as our guide, but at this point in time, we cannot be specific of what will be the new formula."

 
He said the MILF was open to conducting a referendum in Mindanao, stressing that "outsiders" should not dictate how they should govern themselves.

 

"We must have an arrangement wherein the Bangsamoro people, as a nation, can enjoy their right to govern themselves, determine their future, enjoy their way of life," the 56-year-old leader said. "If this can be satisfied, then the Bangsamoro people can be peace-loving."

 

MILF says it is open to a
UN-supervised referendum

President Arroyo's chief negotiator Silvestre Afable said both sides were looking at various "models" on how to resolve the conflict in terms of governance for the Muslims.

 

Both sides were now going to find out "what are constitutionally feasible" options, he added.


Sincerity
 

"We can only say that in the constitution, the people have the right to be consulted in all political matters that affect their lives," Afable said.

"One of the mechanisms is a referendum, and we might be able to come up with a model that will require a referendum. I do not discount that," he added.

"I can assure you that we have seen this mechanism has been very effective," Afable said.

"A high level of sincerity has been shown by both sides."