By Alito L. Malinao
MANILA, March 16 (Xinhua) -- Negotiations between the Philippine government and the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) will resume in Kuala Lumpur on March 25-27 despite the unresolved crisis in the eastern Malaysian state of Sabah, a MILF official said.
MILF chief negotiator Mohagher Iqbal said, "The issue of peace is more important than the issue of war."
Iqbal said that there are some "unscrupulous persons" who are trying to delay the negotiations by linking it to the Sabah issue, adding that these attempts "would go nowhere."
According to Iqbal, the Sabah crisis would not affect the negotiations because the issue in Sabah is security while the issue being tackled in the negotiations in Kuala Lumpur is peace.
In October last year, the Philippine government and the MILF signed a framework agreement that now serves as guide in the formulation of a permanent peace accord.
What is being threshed out in the ongoing talks are the more ticklish issues such as wealth sharing and power sharing between the central government in Manila and the Bangsamoro, the new political entity that was agreed to be set up in the Muslim- dominated southern Philippines.
In a television interview Friday night, MILF vice chairman for political affairs Ghadzali Jaafar also confirmed that the scheduled resumption of the peace talks in Kuala Lumpur would push through.
Asked if the MILF would extend assistance to the followers of Sulu Sultan Jamalul Kiram III, their fellow Muslims, who are being hunted down in Sabah, Jaafar did not give a categorical answer.
He merely said that any request for assistance from any group would have to be discussed and decided by the MILF central committee.
The government of President Benigno Aquino III had earlier made public assurance that the Sabah standoff between Malaysian security force and Filipino Sulu gunmen would not affect the peace talks.
But the heirs of the Sultanate of Sulu said they launched a move to claim the Malaysian-controlled territory after the Sultanate was excluded from the peace talks.
The Sulu Sultanate has a centuries-old territorial claim over Sabah, the former British North Borneo which was annexed by the Federation of Malaysia in l963.
Aside from the Sulu Sultanate, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), the forerunner of the MILF as rebel group, has also complained that they were left out in the peace process.
Nur Misuari, MNLF founder, has strongly criticized the framework agreement, saying that it does not serve the interest of the Muslim Filipinos.
The MNLF has signed a peace accord with the Philippine government in l996 but some MNLF members are still armed and the group has maintained camps in Sulu and Basilan.
Reports said that some MNLF combatants were among the 300 followers of Sultan Kiram, who called themselves as members of the "Royal Forces of the Sultanate of Sulu," when they tried to " liberate" Sabah from Malaysia.
Meanwhile, Malaysia has refused to participate in any negotiation to end the crisis in Sabah, saying that the Sulu militants who occupied a village in Lahad Datu in the name of Sultan Kiram last month should first lay down their arms and surrender.
Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman was quoted as saying at a news conference that his country will not accept any negotiation on Sabah issue at this time, including one being proposed by third parties such as the Philippine government.
Anifah said Kuala Lumpur will agree to negotiate only if the " Sulu terrorists" stop shooting at Malaysian forces and lay down their arms. "They must surrender unconditionally before we can start talking," he said.
According to Sabah Police Commissioner Hamza Taib, the death toll in Kiram's group was 61 as of Friday after the discovery of 15 more bodies in three graves in the village of Tanduao in Lahad Datu.
Nine Malaysian police officers were reportedly killed in encounters with Kiram's followers. The leader of Kiram's followers, Raja Muda Agbimuddin Kiram, brother of Sultan Kiram, is still at large and believed to have escaped to the jungle.
Some 100 Filipinos, some long-time residents of Sabah, have been arrested and detained by Malaysian authorities for allegedly giving assistance to Agbimuddin's group.