GENERAL SANTOS CITY (MindaNews/ 18 August) — From official statements regarding the 30th exploratory talks of the Government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, August 8 to 11, the state of the peace negotiation is clearly this: All leaves, no fruits yet to see. However, they are assuring that soon there will be a bountiful harvest.
In their “Joint Statement”, the Parties say their newly “organized … Technical Working Groups (TWGs) on Power-Sharing and Wealth-Sharing … discussed and reached consensus on some issues on power sharing and revenue generation and wealth sharing arrangements”. [Emphasis supplied]
Without hinting what is this “consensus” the TWGs have “discussed and reached”, the Parties “note the progress in the discussion on a framework agreement” based evidently on this consensus. “The Parties agreed to meet again in late August 2012”.
The “framework agreement” principally embodies the arrangements in the sharing of “power” and of “revenue generation and wealth”. But the consensus is only “on some issues”. In the next exploratory talks this month, the TWGs will continue discussing “most” of the issues still remaining. This can slow down the “progress”; consensus points reached have still to be submitted to the Parties’ principals for final approval.
How much is the “progress”? It can only be surmised. “Some” is less than “most”.
Government Panel Chair Marvic Leonen, after remarks in his “Opening Statement” on the attacks of army camps in Maguindanao and Cotabato provinces by the Bangsamoro Islamic Fighters of Freedom of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Movement, enthuses: “Our negotiations are proceeding with undeniable momentum. We will certainly not pause because of unreasonable violent acts from those who cannot see that the just way to resolve our conflict is through patient and candid dialogue.”
He foresees difficulties but with consoling thoughts: “We have no illusions that the next stages of our negotiations will still be as complex. We are certain that the presence of technical working groups will aid us in no small measure to break down these issues. Also, as we mentioned during the last round of talks, our principals will be confronted with issues that will require difficult decisions. And I am sure that our principals will be willing to make them and communicate them through us so that we can both work on these concerns.”
Yet, he sounds most optimistic: “Now, more than ever, we are presented with the most viable conditions for concluding our agreements and having concluded them, to start yet a more challenging phase: the implementation of our commitments to each other.”
If the “challenging phase” yet to come is “more” than the “most viable conditions” so far the Parties have been presented, tomorrow is full of anxiety. “More than most” is not a formula for comfort: It can deny momentum.
No Other Better Time
MILF Panel Chair Mohagher Iqbal opens his “Opening Statement” with an apology: “Much of what I am supposed to say now has already been highlighted in my previous speeches …”
He states where the negotiation now is: “Clearly, we are now traversing the last stretch of our 15-year peace negotiation.”
He reminds sternly: “… we can expect every sort of obstacle and complication. It is the nature of this undertaking that bargaining becomes more intense in the final stage. If we do not persevere, we will either fall on the wayside or we become the victim of our own making.”
He describes the more than a decade of negotiation as “…never easy … never fun … very difficult and exhausting … incremental.”
He explains in details why “the telling effect of this prolonged engagement is more felt on the rebel’s side rather than on the government side.” That while there are “numerous men and women” the government can tap “to defend the status quo”, for the MILF, “it is very hard to find the right man or woman, who is sincere to the cause [and who has] knowledge of the issues in the negotiation and willingness to take the risks and undergo hardships that come with the negotiation”.
He cites more difficulties of the long negotiation:
 An imbalance handling of “expectation and frustration … will create big problem for the parties in the future”. While “the parties can handle this satisfactorily”, there are outsiders who “pretend to know more than those [at] the negotiating table”.
Contrary to text messages circulating “that the government and MILF have already signed the framework agreement for the establishment of the new Bangsamoro political entity”, he clarifies, “… we are still here in Kuala Lumpur trying to hammer out this issue.” His revelation: “The end of the road for this is still very much to be reckoned by the parties. We do not know when this happens, although we hope it to be soon!”
 The spoilers: “More seriously, it is in the concluding stage of the negotiation that the spoilers are expected to launch their last-ditch efforts to frustrate our effort to conclude these talks successfully. The recent aggression initiated by the so-called Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) against government forces is an example of dirty spoiling. Their intention is clearly to shame us and to stop the peace negotiation.”
On the spoilers’ challenge to MILF and Government, he muses: “But will they succeed? It depends on the MILF and the government. If we are not decided to settle the Moro Question and the armed conflict in Mindanao, then we become their first casualty and their laughing stock.”
 Twin problem and radicals: “This development [re-spoilers] also underscores the difficulty facing the MILF in pursuing the negotiation track to solve [a] the Moro Question and [b] the armed conflict in Mindanao. The so-called radicals are not only distancing themselves from the pacific approach of the MILF, but they are branding us ‘traitors’ for engaging in peace talks with the adversary. Surely, they will not stop until they see the total failure of this negotiation. But by God’s leave, however, they will not succeed.”
He reassures all: “The MILF knows that it is pursuing the right way to solve these twin problems in Mindanao. The path of peace is always the preferred way than the road of war. The late MILF Chairman Salamat Hashim once said: ‘The most civilized and practical way to solve the Moro Problem is through a negotiated political settlement.’ In this way, everybody is a winner.
 Coping with the radicals: “But rest assured that the MILF is confronting the problem of radicalism, especially among the youths, head-on. Of course, the so-called terrorists are not part of the equation. We know that some of those radicals can be won over to the pacific method of resolving the conflict in Mindanao, as indeed, some are already onboard the MILF after series of dialogues with them. It is a matter of reaching out and patiently explaining to them the pacific ways of the MILF.”
 The ideologues: “As per our experience, this group is divided into three categories: the ideologues, the uninformed, and the ‘rah-rah’ boys. We have gained substantially in winning over the last two categories, but we are still locked up in the battle of the minds and ideas with those in the first category.”
But despite the five obstacles he has elaborated, he sounds positive: “To me there is no other better time to settle this problem [the Bangsamoro or Mindanao problem] than at present.” He explains why:
First, the Bangsamoro people are in the mood to settle this conflict;
Second, the Aquino administration is still enjoying a high popularity rating, and President Benigno Aquino III is strongly viewed as willing to give the peace process all the chances to succeed;
Third, the current leadership of the MILF is solid, consistent, and reasonably pragmatic;
Fourth, the international community is urging both parties to conclude the peace talks without delay;
Fifth, the conflict in the South China Sea is still not brewing to the hilt.
Sixth, the MILF has demonstrated itself as a reliable partner in peace-making.
His ultimate challenge: “If we do not want to lose this momentum, then we must seize it by signing the agreement that will address the problem in Mindanao. And altogether, we can face the future with much hope and confidence.” [Emphasis supplied]
Note very well: Iqbal – hence, MILF — sees as “a must” the signing not just of “an” agreement but of “the” agreement “that will address the problem in Mindanao”.
On the Same Paragraph
Tengku Dato Ab Ghafar Tengku Mohamamed, the Malaysian facilitator, in assessing the progress of the peace negotiation talks in simile – likening it to reading a book. This he has repeatedly told MindaNews editor Carolyn O. Arguillas and that the MindaNews editor has repeatedly reported.
In what state is the negotiation now? As of last August 9: “On the same paragraph now, but it’s still a long paragraph.” This is a most significant progress, considering that a year ago the Government and MILF panels were “not only reading different chapters; they were reading different books”, obviously referring to two proposals when the MILF rejected the “GPH ‘3 for 1’ Proposal” on August 23, 2011.
After the Tengku’s “shuttle diplomacy” and intervention from the International Contact Group, the two panels agreed last April 24 to merge their two proposals – two books — into the “GPH-MILF Decision Points on Principle”. The ten-point “Decision” was to be their guide in forging a political settlement.
The progress leading to 30th exploratory talks as the Tengku saw it: Last July 7, “they are now reading the same chapter [hoping that] by end of July [they] would be reading the same paragraph.” On July 17, they “are on the same page now but different paragraphs.” On July 18: “the two panels are still on the same page but are moving closer to the same paragraph.”
That “the two panels are presently working on crafting a framework agreement that they hope to sign within the next few weeks” is the similitude of their being “on the same paragraph but it’s still a long paragraph”. However, the similitude should be carefully understood as it reflects the unpredictable positions of the Parties. With apology to Tolstoy, “The Tengku sees the truth but waits.”
The Tengku’s “the same paragraph” reflects the momentum shared by the two panel chairs; “still a long paragraph”, Iqbal’s revelation to clarify speculations: “… we are still here in Kuala Lumpur trying to hammer out this issue. The end of the road for this is still very much to be reckoned by the parties. We do not know when this happens, although we hope it to be soon!”
The two panel chairs share the same momentum and compulsion of signing soon an agreement. Beyond that they are characters in contrast: Leonen rationalizes – so sure but with “no illusions” of some uncertainties; Iqbal is forthright in revealing the odds and the challenges ahead. The Tengku plays it safe with his simile.
How soon will the framework agreement be ready for signing? This month to be signed next month? ”Our negotiations are proceeding with undeniable momentum,” Leonen blares; but Iqbal applies the muffler. Read carefully between Tengku’s lines: The panels may understand differently that portion of the paragraph they are reading; and, there can be mazes of contentious interpretations of the “still long paragraph” ahead – not just page-length but chapter-length paragraph.
And, remember! What the panels are working on is just “framework agreement” – not “final agreement”. The first has still to be fleshed out to realize the second. If the panels will follow Point 3 of the “Decision” – “The Parties agree to the continuity of negotiations in the context of agreed documents” – the fleshing out may not take long. However, that will lead to the political settlement the MILF wants, quite contrary to the intents of the “GPH-MILF ‘3 for 1’ Proposal”. Will the Aquino government allow that?
The only way to fast-track the final agreement is to sign the “framework agreement” this month or next month and let the Congress flesh it out. Will the MILF allow that — with the guarantee to accept whatever the Congress would eventually present?
Even if MILF does allow, there is a damper: Remember? Instead of the agreed two years, it took the Congress five years to enact the 1996 GRP-MNLF Final Peace Agreement into R.A. 9054 amending R.A. 6734, the ARMM Organic Act. In four years, the Aquino government steps down.
In reality, the “undeniable momentum” and “hope” for signing a final peace agreement “soon” are just seen in words. Much as we believe the Parties will hurdle the odds and present the concrete agreement, the English poet Alexander Pope has a reminder for them in this couplet from his An Essay on Criticism (1711):”Words are like leaves; and where they most abound, / Much fruit of sense beneath is rarely found.”
After their 31st exploratory talks at the end of this month, can the Parties show the fruits among the leaves?
“Comment” is Mr. Patricio P. Diaz’ column for MindaViews, the opinion section of MindaNews. The Titus Brandsma Media Awards recently honored Mr. Diaz with a “Lifetime Achievement Award” for his “commitment to education and public information to Mindanawons as Journalist, Educator and Peace Advocate.” You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)