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NEWS UPDATES Asean Affairs        11  February 2011

Philippines and Muslim rebels revive peace talks

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The Philippine government and the nation's main Islamic separatist group agreed on Thursday to push ahead with a faltering peace process after meeting for the first time in two years.

The government hailed the meeting as a success, saying it yielded "agreements on substantive issues" and that the two sides agreed to "fast track the peace process" with another round of talks scheduled for next month.

The meeting in Kuala Lumpur also covered concerns over the emergence of a breakaway rebel faction that authorities say could undermine efforts to end one of the world's longest-running insurgencies.

The two sides said in a joint statement that they "discussed issues related to" feared rebel commander Ameril Umbrakato's split from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which was announced over the weekend.

In their first round of talks since Philippines president Benigno Aquino came to power last year, they agreed to renew the mandate of the international monitoring team in the troubled southern region for another 12 months.

They also exchanged drafts on their positions and agreed to meet again, possibly on March 29 and 30.

Chief Philippines negotiator Marvic Leonen said he opened the talks by declaring that: "We come to work with you to bring peace, not just aspire for it" and admitting a need to address historical injustices.

The government quoted MILF chief representative Mohagher Iqbal as backing its goal of reaching a settlement within one year and voicing optimism that they were now "closer to peace".

During the talks in the Malaysian capital, Leonen raised concerns over Umbrakato's departure from the 12,000-strong group which he has said could render the MILF unable to deliver on any peace settlement.

The MILF has been fighting for an independent Muslim homeland on the southern island of Mindanao since the 1970s. The conflict has claimed 150,000 lives, according to the government.

Umbrakato, who quit the rebel organisation seven months ago, taking at least a thousand fighters with him, is one of two MILF senior commanders who launched deadly attacks across mostly Christian communities on Mindanao in 2008.

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It is commonplace in journalism to write two types of articles at the transition point between the year that has passed and the New Year. As this writer qualifies as an “old hand” in observing Thailand with a track record dating back 14 years, it is time take a shot at what may unfold in Thailand in 2011.

The first issue that can’t be answered is the health of Thailand’s beloved King Bhumibol, who is now 83 years old. He is the world's longest reigning monarch, but elaborate birthday celebrations in December failed to mask concern over his health. More

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