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Philippine, rebel negotiators reassess Mindanao peace deal

Church groups caution Islamic State could manipulate failed negotiations

Joe Torres, Manila

Joe Torres, Manila

Published: February 11, 2016 09:49 AM GMT

Updated: February 11, 2016 09:55 AM GMT

Philippine, rebel negotiators reassess Mindanao peace deal

Students of a Catholic school in Manila join calls for the passage of a law that will create an autonomous Muslim region in Mindanao. (File photo by Mark Saludes)

Government and Moro rebel negotiators met in Malaysia this week to "re-assess" a 2014 peace agreement following the failure of the Philippine Congress to pass a law that would have established a Muslim autonomous region in Mindanao.

"Today could have been a much happier occasion, if only we had the law that would have moved our road map forward in leaps and bounds," said Miriam Coronel-Ferrer, the Philippine government's chief peace negotiator.

In her statement during the start of the meeting in Kuala Lumpur on Feb. 10, Coronel-Ferrer lamented that despite the "extraordinary efforts" of peace advocates, "we saw the session days in Congress wither away, without a [Bangsamoro Basic Law] in sight."

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"We have learned our lessons," said Mohagher Iqbal, chief negotiator of the rebel Moro Islamic Liberation Front. 

The rebel leader said there is "widespread frustration on the ground by our people ... (who) accused the government of resorting again to delaying tactic and just managing the conflict in Mindanao."

The Philippine Congress, which has gone into recess last week in preparation for the May national elections, failed to pass the Bangsamoro Basic Law, a result of 18 years of peace negotiations between the Philippine government and the front.

The law would have established a new autonomous political entity known as the Bangsamoro in Mindanao that would replace the current Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao. The nonpassage of the law would lead to the archiving of the bill by the current Congress, which means it would have to be refiled again when the new Congress convenes in July.

Coronel-Ferrer, however, remained optimistic, saying that "the path remains clear" because the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro, which was signed by the government and the rebels in 2014, remains in place.

"The next administration would be foolhardy to wage war, and [have] everything to gain by upholding this pathway," said Coronel-Ferrer.

Iqbal said the rebel group is willing to "jointly find ways and means to address this dangerous situation and avoid actions that may increase the frustrations." He said everyone should "work together to overcome the barriers to peace, justice, and reconciliation."

Catholic and Muslim leaders have earlier warned of the entry of extremist groups, such as the so-called Islamic State, who are poised to take advantage of a failed peace deal in Mindanao.

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