By CARLOS H. CONDE
The New York Times
Published: July 15, 2010
MANILA — President Benigno S. Aquino III appointed a law professor known for supporting the land rights of Filipino Muslims on Thursday as chief government negotiator in negotiations with Islamic separatists.
Marvic Leonen, the dean of the University of the Philippines’s College of Law, will head the government panel in talks the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, a Muslim group that has been fighting for a separate Islamic state since the 1970s.
Analysts see Mr. Leonen’s appointment as a sign that the state finally recognizes the right of Filipino Muslims to self-determination. Mr. Aquino appeared to hint as much in his announcement.
“I am aware of our history, our different cultures, and the many just aspirations of our peoples,” Mr. Aquino said in a statement .
Peace negotiations with the Moro front have been going on and off since 1997. Various agreements failed to quell the fighting in some areas in Mindanao, in the south, where the group is waging war against government. Thousands have been killed in the conflict and, at one time, more than 750,000 people were displaced because of the fighting.
In 2008, Christian politicians and settlers in Mindanao opposed an agreement that would have created a separate homeland for Filipino Muslims, who call themselves Moros, arguing that it violated the Constitution. In a subsequent decision, the Supreme Court agreed.
In a press briefing at the presidential palace, Mr. Leonen promised to remain faithful to the Constitution. “We’re committed to learning mistakes from the past,” he said. “We are committed to finding a balance between negotiations and informing the public of the state of the negotiations. We will be faithful to Constitution.”
Julkipli Wadi, a professor of Islamic studies at the University of the Philippines, say Moros have reason to celebrate Mr. Leonen’s appointment. “We feel he has the grasp of the issue and we hope he would be able to shepherd the peace process toward a fair and favorable resolution,” Mr. Wadi said.