Tensions are high, although both sides say they want to avoid a return to armed conflict

Hopes for lasting peace after decades of violence in the southern Philippines have failed again after Muslim separatists walked away from the signing of a deal with the government.

 

Despite 10 years of talks, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) has said it will not sign the agreement because of a dispute over ancestral lands.

 

Muslims fighters began their campaign for an independent Islamic state in the 1970s led by the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), centred on the island of Mindanao.

 

They claim Mindanao and its surrounding islands are ancestral Muslim lands illegally annexed by the Philippines following independence from the US in 1946.

 

Farmer Rasid Naim says his life
has been put on hold for too long
But when the MNLF began peace talks with the government in 1976, hardliners broke off and in the early 1980s formed a splinter group, the MILF.

 

After nearly four decades, the MILF is still fighting for Muslim autonomy and with a peace deal now stalled once again many on Mindanao, like farmer Rasid Naim, remain caught in the middle of the conflict.

 

"A peace agreement between both sides will really help us," Naim says.

 

"Then we can just worry about our family’s future, about our crops, and not whether we will get killed in the fighting."

 

But with MILF fighters doubting the government's promises, Rasid will have to wait a bit longer.

 

Mohagher Iqbal, the MILF's chief negotiator, told Al Jazeera that after a decade of protracted negotiations the government's draft proposal reneged on earlier verbal agreements.

 

The conflict in Mindanao has dragged on for decades

"The government has betrayed the consensus points," he says, accusing officials of introducing "extraneous materials that we have never discussed".

 

The Muslim-dominated areas in the largely Christian Philippines have long felt neglected by the national government.

 

An autonomous Muslim region previously agreed with another separatist group has failed to live up to expectations and despite a wealth of natural resources the Muslim provinces remain the poorest in the country.

 

The MILF hope a Muslim-ruled state with its powers will change that.

 

But it has been a long, bumpy road to peace and a deal still seems a long way away.

 

The government says bringing a lasting
peace is high on its agenda
Meanwhile tensions remain high and MILF fighters say that while they are tired they are always ready to continue the fight.

 

Nonetheless Rodolfo Garcia, the government's chief negotiator, says he remains hopeful the situation will not lead back to armed conflict.

 

"All that we are doing is to solve the decades- old conflict that has bedevilled us in Mindanao," he says.

 

"Mindanao is very high up in the agenda of government, the next best way out is to amend the constitution."

 

But things are not that simple and there is widespread resistance among Filipinos to any kind of constitutional change.

 

For farmers like Rasid Naim, worried about their crops and their family's futures, none of that really matters.

 

For many on Mindanao who feel their lives have been on hold for long enough a muddled peace is better than another war.

Source: Al Jazeera