The first group of Malaysian peacekeepers left the Philippines yesterday as peace talks between the government and Muslim rebels remained stalled, raising worries that clashes could escalate again in the troubled south.
Malaysian Major General Datuk Mat Yasin Bin Mat Daud — leader of an international monitoring team — said he hopes a peace agreement will be signed soon.
The withdrawal is a sign of Kuala Lumpur’s impatience with the slow pace of negotiations that it has brokered to try ending more than 30 years of Muslim separatist insurgency.
“As far as I am concerned, our mission is accomplished. We have left that good foundation for peace,” the Malaysian general told reporters shortly before boarding one of two Malaysian military transport planes in Datu Odin Sinsuat, capital of Shariff Kabunsuan province.
“People don’t have to live in fear anymore,” he said.
HALF THE FORCE
The departing 29 Malaysians represent half of the peacekeeping force, and the other 12 Malaysians are to depart on Aug. 31. There also are contingents from Brunei and Libya, plus one Japanese aid worker.
Rebel negotiators walked away from a meeting in December to protest Manila’s insistence on keeping any accord within the Philippine Constitution.
The Malaysian facilitator of the talks, Othman Abdul Razak, has said that if Manila “wants to stick to the Constitution, things will not move.”
Rodolfo Garcia, the chief government negotiator, tried to allay fears that the Malaysians’ departure would trigger renewed fighting between government troops and the 11,000-strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front, also known as MILF.
“I am very confident that the situation on the ground would not break” and will remain stable, he said, pointing out that some of the peacekeepers will remain in the Philippines and that a joint military-MILF ceasefire committee continues to function.
He said the rebels and the military hope to avoid bloodshed and “want the peace talks to proceed and let this problem be resolved peacefully.”
His rebel counterpart, Mohagher Iqbal, was less optimistic, saying the situation “is very fluid,” especially on the main southern island of Mindanao, where most MILF forces are based.
Iqbal said the arrival of peace monitors in 2004 reduced the level of violence to “nearly zero.”
“It follows that if they withdraw, the possibility of violence flaring up in Mindanao is greater,” he said.
He said many “hawkish” rebel commanders, mistrustful of the government, “may unilaterally act on their own, not necessarily with the blessings of the MILF leadership.”
Garcia defended the government’s stand on reviewing the constitutionality of any accord.
He said the government is conducting “due diligence” in reviewing an agreement’s impact, “including how it would stand public scrutiny and how would it be implementable.”
“We are even looking at the amendment of the Constitution,” he said.
Iqbal, however, said that as a revolutionary organization operating outside the Constitution, the MILF cannot be constrained by the legal system.
“We are not telling them to violate their Constitution. On our part, what we want is to reach an agreement. How they will make it legal is up to them,” the rebel negotiator said.