Gov’t panel chair: “we won’t let this deteriorate into an impasse”

Government peace panel chair Rodolfo Garcia, a retired general who served as deputy chief of staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, told MindaNews they had a “good discussion” with the Cabinet’s Security Cluster and President Arroyo last Tuesday and that the President “remains committed to realize the objective of achieving peace in Mindanao.”

The MILF refused to meet with the government panel last November 15, claiming the government’s draft memorandum of agreement on the consensus points the two panels had earlier achieved on the ancestral domain agenda was “totally unacceptable.”

“This is not a hopeless case. I believe we will be able to resolve this,” Garcia said, referring to the situation as a “temporary difficulty.”

“We are looking very intently on ways to get us out of the situation,”  he said.

“It’s a problem but I have all the highest hopes maaayos yan (that will be fixed),” he added.

In her opening remarks at the National Security Council (NSC) Cabinet Group Executive Committee Meeting last Tuesday (December 18), the President did not name the MILF but said, “ Isusulong din natin ang kapayapaan at seguridad sa Mindanao. Dito sa NSC Executive Committee meeting ngayon, pag-uusapan ang prosesong pangkapayapaan at kung paano ito makakasulong alinsunod sa saligang batas, kasarinlan at integridad ng teritoryo ng ating republika” (We will also push for peace and security in Mindanao. Here at the NSC Executive Committee meeting today, we will discuss the peace process and how we can push this forward in accordance with the Constitution, sovereignty and territorial integrity of our republic).

“Pilipino lahat tayo, Muslim man o Kristiyano. Hindi natin dapat payagang maaksaya itong pagkakataon para sa kapayapaan at kaunlaran sa ilalim ng isang bandila, konstitusyon at republika” (We are all Filipinos, Muslims or Christians. Let us not waste this chance for peace and progress under one Flag, Constitution and Republic.”)

The government and MILF were supposed to meet at 10 a.m. on December 15 the Sheraton Imperial hotel in Kuala Lumpur but the MILF informed Datuk Othman bin Abdul Razak, the Malaysian facilitator, that they would not meet with the government panel.

Iqbal told MindaNews they opted to call off the meeting because “if we did not, we would have ended in an impasse again.”

The talks had ended in an impasse in September 2006 on the aspect of territory under the ancestral domain agenda. It was only on October 24 this year when the two panels finally broke the 13-month impasse and expressed “deep satisfaction over the successful resolution of major issues to overcome the impasse.”

The two panels met again last month in Kuala Lumpur and were supposed to meet last weekend to finalize the Memorandum of Agreement on the consensus points on the four aspects of Ancestral Domain: concept, resources, governance, and territory.

Iqbal said the government’s draft was a “chop-chop of the consensus points” and contained “new elements” and the “constitutional process” phrase.

In the present Philippine set-up, government negotiators are caught in a bind as changes in governance systems or expanding a local government unit require “Constitutional processes,” the issue that led to the September 2006 impasse.

The government panel had offered 613 predominantly Moro towns and villages to the MILF’s proposed Bangsamoro Juridical Entity (BJE) in addition to the core territory of the six-province, two-city Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), subject to
“constitutional processes,” which the MILF objected to.

The present ARMM comprises six provinces – Maguindanao, Sulu, Tawi-tawi, Lanao del Sur, Basilan and Shariff Kabunsuan (carved out of Maguindanao in 2006) and the cities of Marawi and Lamitan).

Negotiators nearly found a formula in December 2006, focusing on “self determination,” which is within the bounds of the Constitution. Details were not made available.

Whatever that formula was, it was not pursued by the government peace panel.  On October 24 this year, the panels broke the September 2006 impasse through a compromise on what areas would comprise the future BJE “immediately” and “later,”  MILF chair Al Haj Murad Ebrahim told MindaNews in late October.

Ebrahim said the compromise was a formula that would have “ARMM plus contiguous areas” join the BJE “immediately” with the other areas, “not necessarily all contiguous” joining “later.” He declined to elaborate on “later” although this presumably refers to within or after a transition period the panels still have to agree upon.

MILF peace panel member Datu Michael Mastura last year explained that it is the Bangsamoro people, not the majority non-Moro, who should be made to decide in a referendum if they want to be part of the BJE or not.

Since the mid-1970s, the Philippine government had subjected residents in the
“areas of autonomy” listed under the Tripoli Agreement of 1976 between the Philippine government and the Moro National Liberation Front, from whom the MILF broke away, to a plebiscite thrice –in 1977, in 1989 and in 2001, to find out if they want to be part of the autonomous region.

Last Saturday, Iqbal, in a statement he issued as MILF Information Chief, said he believes that “spoilers of the peace process right at the corridors of powers are at work behind the scene to intervene again at the expense of our honorable counterpart from the government, without the knowledge of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.” (Carolyn O. Arguillas/MindaNews)

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