Sunday, August 5, 2001

official sees pact
with rebels soon

The House speaker, in Hawaii
for a forum, predicts accords
with separatists in 10 days

By B.J. Reyes

DESPITE RENEWED VIOLENCE by separatist Muslims in the southern Philippines, a government official says peace talks in Malaysia aimed at ending the fighting should produce results very soon.

"I think in about 10 days we should sign the initial peace accords in Malaysia," Philippine House Speaker Jose de Venecia said.

Talks between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front resumed late last month, shrouded in secrecy, in Kuala Lumpur.

In an interview with the Star-Bulletin on Friday -- a day after the insurgent Muslim group Abu Sayyaf seized 36 Filipinos and beheaded at least four in an apparent attempt to punish the government for its ongoing war against them -- de Venecia said he hoped the pending peace accords would stem the fighting in war-ravaged regions of the southern Philippines.

"The peace accords in Kuala Lumpur will have a calming effect on Mindanao and the nation because that will completely isolate and outflank the Abu Sayyaf," de Venecia said.

The radical Abu Sayyaf say they are battling for a separate Muslim homeland, though the government considers them merely bandits. Larger Muslim guerrilla groups, such as the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, have sought to make peace with the government.

Striking a peace agreement with the insurgents is key to turning around the economic fortunes of the country, the speaker said.

"We have to turn the economy around, that's the most important thing," de Venecia said. "Secondly, we have to unite the Filipino people and complete the peace agreements.

"The key for turning the economy around is to bring peace and stability to the country and quality investments will flow in."

Renewing quality investments in the Philippines is part of the reason de Venecia is in Hawaii this weekend.

The speaker was invited to attend a forum bringing together business leaders, fund managers and consultants to discuss the establishment of an Asia-Pacific fund. De Venecia also hopes to gain input on a plan to establish an economic recovery fund for the Philippines.

Additionally, "I want to get in touch with the Filipino community here to tell them about the historic changes in the Philippines," de Venecia said. He is scheduled to address a gathering at the Philippine Consulate today before returning to the Philippines tomorrow.

Among those changes is the ascension to power of de Venecia's former running mate, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

De Venecia finished second to Joseph Estrada, out of 10 candidates, in the 1998 presidential election. Arroyo won the vice presidency (the offices are selected independently of each other) and became president earlier this year when Estrada resigned amid allegations of corruption. His trial is scheduled for October.

"I, for one, generally feel sorry for (Estrada), even though he was my bitter opponent in the 1998 elections," de Venecia said. "I am praying for him. It would be unchristian not to feel sorry for him."

Though de Venecia lost in 1998, the three-term house speaker says he has no intention of seeking high office in the next elections in 2004.

"My candidate for 2004 is my running mate in 1998, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo," de Venecia said. "We have to give her own mandate because right now she just succeeded to the presidency without being elected."

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