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Updated: February 10, 1987 05:00 PM GMT
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Church leaders predicted failure for the peace talks which started here Feb. 9 between government and Muslim rebels seeking regional autonomy.

These fears are based on mutual Christian-Muslim suspicions, divisions among Muslims, the narrow representation of the Muslim panel and the failure of government talks with the leftist National Democratic Front (NDF).

The constitution grants autonomy to Muslim Mindanao and the Cordillera Mountain region of Northen Luzon, provided the arrangements are accepted democratically by the people.

The Muslims will present their plans for autonomy in Zamboanga City Feb. 19 and government is to respond within 10 days. A technical committee will then harmonize the plans before both sides meet this May in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

The rebels, according to spokesman Ali Al-Rashid, want the autonomous region to comprise the Muslims´ traditional homeland -- all of Mindanao, the islands off its southwest coast of Mindanao and the islands forming Palawan province.

Muslims controlled this area till the 20th century but now comprise about 20 percent of its population. Five small, non-contiguous provinces have Muslim majorities.

Al-Rashid said that within the proposed autonomous region, areas with Muslim majorities would follow Muslim shariah law and Islamic cultural and social forms, while Christian areas would follow national law and customs.

This proposal scales down the rebels´ original demand that the entire autonomous region follow Islamic state forms.

-- However, Church observers doubted that this new proposal would please Christians in the proposed autonomous region. "Old suspicions die slowly," one said.

Mutual suspicions were aggravated by the Muslim rebellion which started shortly after then President Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law in 1972.

The rebellion protested increasing oppression of Muslims by the Christian government and by Christian farmers who occupied Muslim lands.

Muslims claim 125,000 died in this war. Government admits to 50,000.

Bishop Fernando Capalla of Iligan, head of the Mindanao bishops´ ad hoc committee on Muslim relations, has often said Christians are so suspicious of Muslims they will not live voluntarily in a Muslim autonomous zone.

Al-Rashid agrees that the major problem facing a Christian-Muslim autonomous region is suspicions both groups entertain toward each other.

-- Claretian Bishop Jose Maria Querexeta of Isabela (Basilan), whose diocese is 90 percent Muslim, also expressed scepticism about the talks.

The more one moves beyond general principles, such as equal protection under the law for Christians and Muslims, the murkier the picture of what autonomy may be, the Spanish bishop said.

Understanding the Muslim situation must begin with accepting that they have been abused, cheated and victimized by Christians for centuries, he stressed. The Muslims´ demand for power over their own lives is "quite reasonable."

Bishop Querexeta found President Corazon Aquino warm and interested, but he wondered how well she understands the Muslim problem. He was especially critical of government´s failure to consult ordinary Muslims.

"I voice the common feeling of Muslim leaders and ordinary people: they are disappointed that they haven´t been consulted," he told UCA News Feb. 6.

"All Muslims are disappointed, not just the other rebel groups."

Bishop Querexeta criticized the two officials who have headed exploratory talks with the Muslims -- Agapito "Butz" Aquino, Aquino´s brother-in-law, and former Minister of Local Government Aquilino Pimentel.

They know nothing about the Muslim problem, have favored some rebels over others and more seriously, have ignored the views of ordinary Muslims, Bishop Querexeta said.

The bishop recalled that he and other Mindanao leaders told Mrs. Aquino in Zamboanga City Jan. 18 that she needs wider consultation with ordinary people before agreeing on peace terms.

"Negotiations with a rebel group or rebel groups are negotiations in mid-air, in a vacuum," he said. There will be no peace till the government goes beyond the rebels and talks to the people, he continued.

"Ninety percent of the Muslim people want peace and an end to fighting," he said. "These are Cory´s likeliest constituency, people she must talk with."

-- Bishop Querexeta also cited ethnic divisions among Muslims as another barrier to autonomy. The rebels have split into three factions corresponding to the three main Muslim ethnic groups (tribes).

The Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), the first group, is mainly Tausug in its constituency, and is centered on the Sulu islands off southwest Mindanao.

The Moro Islamic Liberation Front, based around Cotabato City in western Mindanao, is mainly Maguindanao in composition. It was not represented at the Feb. 9 talks.

The third faction, a reformed MNLF group, is composed chiefly of the Maranao tribe of northern Mindanao.

There are conflicts among these major Muslim groups and with smaller Muslim tribes, Bishop Querexeta said.

He pointed to his diocese where the marketplace and about 400 homes were destroyed as Tausugs and Yakans, a smaller Muslim tribe, fought a battle over political appointments on the island.

-- Other observers based their skepticism on the failure of government-NDF talks which broke down a few hours before talks with Muslim rebels began.

They predicted failure because government and Muslim negotiators have started with widely divergent expectations, just as government and NDF negotiators did.

The NDF said it saw no reason to extend the cease-fire, which ended Feb. 8, since government had no intention of using the extended cease-fire period to discuss and solve some basic national problems, such as agrarian unrest.

Since talks began in early January, it was clear, observers said, that the NDF and the government had completely different frameworks and expectations.


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