Extension of IMT tour of duty dependent on peace talks progress

On Monday, the Malaysian national news agency, Bernama, reported that Foreign Minister Rais Yatim confirmed that day that “Malaysia will not be sending any more monitoring teams to Mindanao after the mandate of its current team ends in September.”

The tour of duty of  the 41 Malaysians in the 57-member IMT-4 or the fourth batch of IMT personnel, officially ends on August 31 this year, unless extended.

Bernama, quoted Yatim as saying, “we have to get cooperation from both sides. But if one party is not making the effort, we will have to end the mission.”

“Malaysia is actually prepared to continue with whatever humanitarian effort, whether through negotiation or cooperation, but if the situation remains negative and the government there feels it needs to review it, then we shall give them room to do so," bernama.com quoted Yatim as saying, after opening the conference on 'Humanitarian Challenges in Contemporary Conflicts', at the Institute of Diplomacy and Foreign Relations (IDFR) last Monday.

Last year, the Malaysian government also warned it may pull-out its contingent if there was no progress in the peace talks that went on impasse in early September 2006.

The peace panels met in August 2007 in Cyberjaya, Malaysia to request for an extension of the IMT’s tour of duty for another year, ending August 2008.

“Both sides affirm the substantial contribution of the IMT for almost three years in helping stabilize the ground environment in Mindanao, and in boosting international confidence to the peace process,” the peace panel chairs said in their joint statement then.

The request for extension was granted and the scope of the coverage of the IMT was even expanded to include Basilan, Sulu, Tawi-tawi and Palawan.

The September 2006 impasse was finally broken in October 2007 and both panels expressed optimism they could sign an agreement on ancestral domain before the year ended but the talks were again stalled in December when the MILF peace panel refused to meet with the Philippine government peace panel in Kuala Lumpur on the grounds that the latter veered away from the consensus points previously agreed upon.

MILF peace panel chair Mohagher Iqbal told MindaNews the government peace panel should “stop its foot-dragging, resume talks and abide by what the two parties agreed for the draft memorandum agreement on ancestral domain.”

Last week, he told MindaNews after meeting with 10 European Union ambassadors that major and minor issues in relation to the ancestral domain issue had been ironed out during the February 19 to 22, 2008 visit of the Malaysian facilitator, Datuk Othman bin Abdul Razak,  who was shuttling between the MILF and government peace panels.

The Philippine government, however, has not made its move, Iqbal said.

According to the Terms of Reference (TOR) signed September 4, 2004, the IMT’s main task is to monitor the implementation of the Agreement on Peace of June 2001 between the Philippine government and the MILF and the August 7, 2001  implementing guidelines on the Security Aspect and May 7, 2002 implementing guidelines on the Humanitarian and Development Aspects.

The IMT is  based in Cotabato City but, as of August 28, 2007, had five mobile teams and offices in the cities of Davao, Cotabato, General Santos, Iligan and Zamboanga.

Malaysia heads the team of peace-keeping forces. The other countries with military teams are Brunei and Libya while Japan sent a senior development expert instead of  a military unit. Canada and Sweden had earlier expressed interest to join the IMT.

IMT-4 has 41 Malaysians, 10 from Brunei, 5 Libyans and one Japanese.

Philippine government peace panel chair Rodolfo Garcia, a retired Army general and vice chief of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, could not be reached for comment but Reuters news quoted him as saying "there's no guarantee of continued stability on the ground in the south if the Malaysians pack up their bags and go home.”

Garcia said the progress may be slow but explained the Philippine government was cautious in ensuring that whatever peace agreement it would sign would be implemented smoothly.

"I think it is the government's duty to conduct due diligence on what the two sides would eventually agree because there are so many legal and constitutional issues involved. It remains as one of the government's priorities and we're hoping to wrap it up before August this year,”  Garcia said, according to Reuters.

As has been practiced since 2004, preparations for the change in personnel of the IMT begin around May and June and a gradual changeover of IMT personnel is made in  July so that by end of August, only the head of mission, say the present IMT-4 Head of Mission, is left to do exit calls and to introduce the incoming Head Of Mission for IMT-5, if the IMT’s stay will be extended to August 2009.

Under the Terms of Reference of the IMT, Malaysia can cease or suspend the  performance of their functions with due notice to the Philippine government and the MILF peace panels “in the event that the field situation becomes too dangerous and life-threatening to its members” or  “when either the GRP or MILF fails to fulfill their commitments and responsibilities to the peace process.”  (Carolyn O. Arguillas/MindaNews)

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