GPH-MILF talks: how the Int’l Contact Group helped save the day for the peace process

KUALA LUMPUR (MindaNews/24 August)  –  “What is this? A walk-out?”

“No, there is no walk-out,”  Prof. Miriam Coronel-Ferrer, a member of the government peace panel said, seconds after peace panel chair Marvic Leonen, former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Law, walked briskly into the foyer with a scowl on his face and in a voice loud enough for everyone to hear, said, “Tawagin silang lahat. Ngayon na.” (Call them. Now).

Everyone – the technical support staff, communications staff and the two generals and a major –immediately stood up, grabbed their bags, laptops and documents and along with the panel members, followed Leonen to the glass-walled passage leading to the main lift. But just as swiftly as they left, they returned, initially moving towards one of the function rooms to their left,  turned around again and headed for the glass door that would lead to the Tai Ping Restaurant on the same floor.

BRIDGE Members of the International Contact Group (from left), Keizo Takewaka, political minister of the Japanese Embassy in Manila (partly covered); David Gorman of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue; Emma Leslie of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies in Cambodia who represents Conciliation Resources; Dr. Steven Rood of The Asia Foundation and Chris Wright, political officer of the United Kingdom’s Embassy in Manila. They shuttled between the government and MILF peace panels and got them to return to the negotiating table after the 11:45 a.m. adjournment at the Royale Chulan Hotel in Kuala Lumpur on Tuesday, to clarify their respective statements. MindaNews photo by Carolyn O. ArguillasIt was 11:45 a.m. August 23 and while the talks scheduled August 22 to 24  were supposed to adjourn the next day, the agenda that day had already indicated a closing session at 2 p.m. (Tuesday’s session started 9:40 a.m.; a break was called at 10:50 for five minutes but the session resumed at 11:10).

Curiously, only the government panel left the meeting venue — the Executive Boardroom of the Royale Chulan Hotel — the hallway leading to it guarded by Malaysian security in civilian clothes.

The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and members of the International Contact Group (ICG), were presumably still inside.

Just as soon as the government panel entered the restaurant, Tengku Dato’ Ab Ghafar Tengku Mohamed, the Malaysian facilitator, walked into the foyer. “What is happening? Where are we now in the process, Sir,” we asked. “The MILF has to take back the government’s proposal to the MILF Central Committee,” he replied.

“The meeting is adjourned,” Tengku said. “Just now.”

“When will they meet next? Has a date been set?”

After the MILF’s Central Committee “comes up with its own position,” he said.

International Contact Group

Tengku walked towards the main lift but a few minutes later, returned and proceeded to the hallway leading to the Executive Boardroom. Shortly thereafter,  he walked back into the foyer, with ICG member Emma Leslie of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies in Cambodia who represents Conciliation Resources in the ICG. The two were in serious discussion for a couple of minutes, after which Leslie returned to the boardroom and Tengku again made his way to the main lift.

Composed of “groups of states and non-state organizations to accompany and mobilize international support for the peace process,” the ICG is supposed to coordinate with the facilitator and is mandated to “exert the necessary leverage and assistance towards sustaining the trust and confidence of both sides at the negotiating table” and be a “bridge to Mindanao stakeholders.” It was set up by both panels in late 2009  to avoid a repetition of the debacle that was the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD) of August 5, 2008, where both panels were left in a quandary on how to move forward.

The ICG gets to attend the panel sessions, unless the facilitator calls for an executive session which usually involves only a “1+1” meeting of the panel chairs and one member each.

The ICG comprises member-states Turkey, Japan and the United Kingdom and  member-INGOs Center for Humanitarian Dialogue, Muhammadiyah and The Asia foundation.

Up until Tuesday, the ICG’s role as a group that could possibly help prevent awkward situations from turning into disasters, was untested.  By Tuesday, the ICG’s intercession would save the day for the GPH-MILF peace process.

Return to the table

At 1 p.m., ICG members Leslie, Dr. Steven Rood of The Asia Foundation, David Gorman of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue; Chris Wright, political officer of the United Kingdom’s Embassy in Manila and Keizo Takewaka, political minister of the Japanese Embassy in Manila, walked into the foyer  from the Executive Boardroom and headed to the Tai Ping Restaurant where the government panel was.

Minutes later, MILF peace panel chair Mohagher Iqbal and senior panel member Michael Mastura walked slowly into the foyer, their mood somber. They talked about what happened briefly, about how their proposal was a product of 10 years negotiation, the compromises they had already made and how government’s proposal was “heaven and earth” compared with theirs.

They returned to the boardroom.

Curiously again, while the meeting had officially adjourned at 11:45 a.m., both panels, billeted in different hotels,  had stayed on in Royale Chulan.

As it turned out, the ICG got the two panels to stay on.

Shortly before 2 p.m. some ICG members could be seen shuttling between the Tai Ping Restaurant where the government panel was and the Executive Boardroom where the MILF was.

At 2 p.m. Iqbal, Mastura and the MILF delegation walked into the foyer and turned right into the hallway leading to the prayer rooms.

Leonen would be seen walking into the foyer  from the Tai Ping Restaurant at 2:15 p.m. followed shortly by Ferrer.  Tengku walked in apparently from the main lift. At 2:20 p.m.  Iqbal and  Mastura walked in from the prayer room.

A the Executive Boardroom, a  1+1 meeting with the facilitator was happening. A representative of the ICG waited nearby.

At the foyer, members of both the government and MILF delegations waited in one corner, exchanging pleasantries and jokes that were increasing in number as the seconds turned into minutes and the minutes into an hour. Laughter eased the tension.

The 1 + 1meeting lasted for 73 minutes – from 2:20 p.m. to 3:33 p.m.

Rejecting the rejection

Leonen walked into the foyer with Ferrer and Tengku. Leonen said there is no joint statement but points had been clarified.

At 3:35 p.m. Tengku, ICG members and the other members of the MILF peace panel and secretariat who were left behind in the foyer,  proceeded to the Executive Boardroom. The government panel, meanwhile, gathered in the middle of the foyer listening to Leonen’s briefing later moving towards the main lift, this time en route to the Philippine Embassy for a press conference.

At 3:47 p.m., Tengku and the ICG members walked back into the foyer.

The MILF took another exit route to return to their hotel.

The ICG members were no longer just a physical presence in the talks. Their intercession immediately after the unexpected adjournment, brought the two parties back to the negotiating table to clarify each other’s statements.

When the MILF peace panel said shortly before the adjournment that they were rejecting the government’s proposal, Leonen actually said, “we reject your rejection.”

“I said, you gave your proposal, we received it in good faith and studied it. This is a negotiation,” Leonen told MindaNews, adding it is normal that one side would take a hardline stance.

It was the third panel-to-panel meeting under the Aquino administration and the first after the historic meeting between President Benigno Simeon Aquino and MILF chair Al Haj Murad Ebrahim on August 4,  in Japan. There,  both leaders discussed peace for two hours and agreed  that negotiations be fast-tracked to ensure that whatever agreement is forged can be implemented  within the Aquino administration whose term ends on June 30, 2016.

Both panels had earlier said they hoped to reach an agreement by April 2012.

Yet, after the euphoria over the Aquino-Murad meeting, the first panel-to-panel meeting would adjourn a day ahead of schedule with no joint statement issued.

Usually, at the end of the talks, the panels issue a joint statement summarizing the key points tackled. And several issues were actually discussed and agreed upon, among them the status of Ustadz Amiril Umra Kato and the terms of reference of the International Monitoring Team’s Humanitarian, Rehabilitation and Development Component. The MILF also presented its position on the issue of oil and gas explorations and the privatization of the hydro plants.

But it was the MILF’s response to the government’s peace proposal, and the government’s response to the MILF response, that led to the adjournment.

In the absence of a joint statement, how were the panels to explain  to their respective principals and constituencies back home about what happened in Kuala Lumpur?

“Exceptionally well”

“They did their role exceptionally well,” Iqbal said of the ICG  as he acknowledged, in a telephone interview Wednesday, that there were “two immovables” on Tuesday, referring to panels’ respective positions, just before the adjournment.

He said the 1+1 meeting gave the panels the chance to “level off on our understanding” of each other’s pre-adjournment statements.

He said that on the level of the panel, they reject the government’s proposal but would bring it up to the MILF Central Committee for further deliberation and it is up to the Committee to “uphold us, sustain us or reverse us.”

At the press conference at the Philippine Embassy, Leonen announced the MILF peace panel had recommended to the MILF Central Committee to reject the government’s proposal.

But he noted that the MILF did not return the document. “Be that as it may, the situation that we have now is that the parties have their various positions on the table. It is not unusual in negotiations that one of the parties takes a hard-line position on the contents of the initial documents of another party,” Leonen said in a written statement issued evening of August 23.

Leonen told the press conference Tuesday: “We look at it from the point of view not of how wide the gap is (between the government and MILF proposals) but we look at it from the point of view of what can be agreed upon.” He quoted Iqbal as having said “Let’s work at what we can agree upon.”

“This is not the end of the peace process,” Iqbal told MindaNews Wednesday.

The ICG’s efforts to get the two panels to get the two panels to return to the table after the adjournment paid off  because of the willingness of both panels to return.

The two  hope to resume negotiations soon. (Carolyn O. Arguillas/MindaNews)

URL: http://www.mindanews.com/top-stories/2011/08/24/gph-milf-talks-how-the-intl-contact-group-helped-save-the-day-for-the-peace-process/


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