Fr. Mercado declines gov’t peace panel chairmanship

Fr. Mercado told MindaNews in a text message at 11:34 a.m. today (June 20) that he had communicated with MILF chair Al Haj Murad Ebrahim and had clarified the objections they posed and “you may announce that I decline the nomination on the basis of the objections of the MILF.”

In a telephone interview at 11:50 a.m., he said had “seen the validity of the MILF’s objections.”

The MILF had said the changing of Afable was a “bad signal for the peace process.”

“Trust has been (earned) over the years then a newcomer comes in suddenly. He will start from number one. But of course, that’s GRP’s (Government of the Republic of the Philippiens) prerogrative,” MILF peace panel chair Mohagher Iqbal told MindaNews in a telephone interview Saturday afternoon.

On the replacement of Afable by Mercado, Iqbal said on Sunday it was a “setback” and that while they “respect and highly regard (Fr. Mercado),” the job of a chairman is “strictly state matters. There is separation of church and state in the Philippines."

MILF peace panel member Datu Michael Mastura said the peace negotiations had been downgraded with the naming of a churchman when previous chairs were Cabinet men.

Ebrahim sent a letter to the Philippine government through the Malaysian facilitator but details of the letter had not been divulged.

Fr. Mercado, who is presently in Manila, and Ebrahim communicated and discussed “clarifications behind the objections,” he said.

He said the Ebrahim informed him they would rather see him head an independent body that would monitor and assess the implementation of the peace agreement between the Philippine government and the MILF.

On Tuesday afternoon, Presidential spokesperson Ignacio Bunye Malacanang was quoted by GMA News TV as saying the choice was “not yet final” and Malacañang was still looking for the replacement of Afable.

Bunye was also quoted as saying that the announcement of Fr. Mercado's appointment did not come from him.

Dureza, who heads the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (OPAPP), the office which has jurisdiction over the peace panels, announced Fr. Mercado’s appointment Saturday afternoon.

In a four-paragraph statement, he said the Palace had named Fr. Mercado as the new peace panel chair vice Afable “who relinquished his post over the weekend.”

Dureza said Fr. Mercado’s chairmanship “will ensure a seamless transition and a continuity in the efforts to move forward the peace negotiation with the MILF.”

Dureza said that last Monday, “we got feedback about the MILF’s concerns about him (Fr. Mercado) so now we’re trying to clarify these concerns because it is important that the new negotiator is welcomed by the other side.”

He said the Palace had not issued Fr. Mercado an official appointment as yet “but he remains our choice.”

Fr. Mercado told MindaNews Tuesday afternoon that he was aware of the objections posed by the MILF and that these concerns, which were also his concerns, were being addressed.

He said among these concerns was the alleged downgrading of the peace process in that the former chairs were members of the Cabinet. Fr. Mercado was supposed to be the fourth government peace panel chair under the Arroyo administration.

The other concerns are participation of the peace panel chair in the Cabinet meetings, complete trust and confidence of the President and complete authority within the mandate given by the President.

In his “opening note” emailed to MindaNews early Monday morning, Fr. Mercado said, “I wish to thank President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo for her trust and confidence for giving me the mandate.  She assures me not only of her Government’s policy of the ‘Primacy of the Peace Process’ but more so of her unstinting support and commitment to the Peace Process and my leadership as Chief Negotiator of the Government of the Republic of the Philippines in our continuing peace process with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). I shall brief her and the Cabinet on a regular basis on the progress of the Peace Process.  To show her support and commitment, she has given me full power and confidence to write the specifications of the mandate that need to be added to the existing one.”

Fr. Mercado said he was still writing the additional specifications which he said, includes the concerns raised by the MILF.

On Wednesday noon, however, Fr. Mercado told MindaNews he had made his decision not to accept the chairmanship. (Carolyn O. Arguillas/MindaNews)

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