COMMENT: Racing against time (1). By Patricio P. Diaz

1st of a series

GENERAL SANTOS CITY (MindaNews/14 November) — The Aquino Government has six years from July 1, 2010 to June 30, 2016 to continue the negotiation with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and end it up with the resolution of the Mindanao or Bangsamoro Problem. The race is in its fifth month; there are 67 months left. And the negotiation has not re-started – the racers are still at the starting line.

Re-starting the negotiation this month is imperative relative to one essential element of the negotiation: keeping the ceasefire in place. The proven fact is: The International Monitoring Team (IMT) is the only one that keeps the ceasefire in place, the referee that prevents the brawl so the game can go on smoothly.

The tour of duty of the present IMT led by Malaysia with contingents from Brunei, Libya and Japan will expire on December 8. To renew the mandate of the IMT for another year, the GRP and MILF peace panels have to meet and request for the renewal. But as of this week, the resumption of the peace talks is still in Limbo.

President Aquino and his peace team had said the peace talks would resume after the Muslim Holy Month of Ramadan which ended last September 10. Yet, two months have lapsed and there is no peace talks in sight. What’s delaying the talks?


Before the Ramadan started, all had been in place and ready for the talks to start any time: the peace panels, the talk agenda, the third-party facilitator, the venue and the ceasefire holding on. In fact, the MILF said that they did mind resuming the peace talks during   Ramadan had the GRP wanted to.

The main talking point was set when the Ramos Government started the negotiation in 1997: To Solve the Bangsamoro Problem. The General Framework of Agreement was drawn to tackle this talking point by the Estrada Government in 1998; in 2001, the framework was further refined by the Arroyo GRP and MILF peace panels — The Tripoli Agreement of Peace on June 22, 2001.

The many interim agreements signed from 1997 to the last meeting of the Arroyo GRP and the MILF peace panels on June 3, 2010 all incrementally lead to the resolution of To Solve the Bangsamoro Problem. Only the third and last aspect, but the most important, aspect of 2001 Tripoli Agreement of Peace has to be resolved – the Ancestral Domain, the political settlement being sought by the MILF.

When the controversy that has locked the Ancestral Domain agendum is resolved and embodied in the Comprehensive Compact or Final Peace Agreement, the negotiation shall have been consummated. This is the task of the Aquino Government all ready for the taking up from where the Arroyo Government had left.

The atmosphere is conducive for the talk to resume. Since the return of the IMT [February 28, 2010; December 8, 2009 was the official beginning of its new mandate], peace in Muslim Mindanao has been restored.  From January to October 2010, only three military-MILF encounters had been recorded compared to 116 from January to December 2009, despite the Government’s and the MILF’s reciprocal orders to suspend hostilities starting the last week of July 2009 (MindaNews, November 8, 2010).

Both the Aquino Government and the MILF have confirmed, as reported in various news media, the continued engagement of Malaysia as the third-party facilitator. And Malaysia has made known its readiness to resume the task.

Burden on Aquino GRP

The MILF has stated its position: It is negotiating with the Philippine Government, not with a particular president’s administration. Metaphorically, the MILF team is playing with the Philippine team; the players may change but the teams continue playing the game under the same agreed rules and referees until the game is over – unless they agree on some changes.

This position prevailed during the Estrada and Arroyo administrations after Ramos. The talks had progressed around To Solve the Bangsamoro Problem until July 27, 2008 when the Arroyo GRP and the MILF peace panels initialed the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain to be the framework in the final negotiation of the Comprehensive Agreement – and from the resumption of the peace talks in July 2009 until the end of the Arroyo presidency.

Will the Aquino players of the Philippine Team continue playing with the MILF the same game under the same rules and referees until the Comprehensive Agreement is signed?

Disturbing Signals

President Aquino and his peace team have shown their sincerity and interest to continue the game — the peace team saying it has reviewed past resolutions and agreements; will study the official notes and minutes of the negotiation; will not start the talks from scratch; and Malaysia will remain as the third-party facilitator. But such sincerity and interest emit disturbing signals that explain the delay of the resumption of the talks.

In his speech, “Let Us Make Peace”, during the National Solidarity Conference for Mindanao in Quezon City last August 13, GRP Panel Chair Dean Marvic Leonen, after stating the relative importance of “process” and “substance” in a negotiation, said:

“We do not want the process to drive the substantive agenda. We want the process to facilitate it.  And the process includes (1) the levels of comfort that both negotiating parties have in relation to the parameters of the talks.  It should include (2) clear terms of reference that covers matters like (a) the nature of the third party’s participation, (b) protocols in communication, (c) the setting of the agenda, (d) sharing of the minutes of meetings, (e) possibilities for direct conversation between the parties, (f) role international actors and (g) others.” [(numbers) and (letters) mine

Leonen specified seven aspects of “process”. Then, he said:

“Hence, I do not think that this new administration and this newly appointed negotiator can be faulted if we seek to review the terms of reference of the facilitation of the past discussions.  I do not think that it is unwise for us to assess, based on the experience of the past panels and secretariats, whether we can be comfortable with the current facilitator …”

The intent is clear: The GRP peace team is seeking changes after a thorough “review” of “terms of reference” in consideration of its “level of comfort” – a new facilitator named and some negotiation procedures changed. And Leonen justifies this:

“From our present understanding of what transpired towards the end of the past administration, this was even expected by the current facilitator.  We would have thought that this would be welcomed by the other party and by the current facilitator (and the state to which she or he belongs), considering that it would show that we are sincere and professional in our tasks.”

Sincerity and professionalism are understandable; nevertheless, the signals are disturbing. [Aside: Why refer to the current facilitator as “she or he” (in parenthesis) when Datuk Othman bin Abdul Razak is a “he”?]

As gathered from reliable sources, the GRP peace team has addressed its concerns to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs — not to the Prime Minister who has designated the Research Department of his Office as the GRP-MILF negotiation Secretariat and the Department’s Director General as the facilitator.  The Aquino peace team complains about the head referee and some rules of the game and sends its complaints to one member of the board not to the league commissioner.

The MILF (Luwaran, November 10, 2010) protested that the President should have taken up the matter with the Malaysian Prime Minister without bringing out the matter about the facilitator in public or in media – making it clear that the issue is beyond the “turf” of the peace panels – they cannot decide it. (Tomorrow: Process mired)

[“Comment” is Mr. Patricio P. Diaz’ column for MindaViews, the opinion section of MindaNews. Mr. Diaz is the recipient of a “Lifetime Achievement Award” from the Titus Brandsma for his “commitment to education and public information to Mindanawons as Journalist, Educator and Peace Advocate.” He was conferred the 1st Agong Awards by the Mindanao Media Forum early November this year. You may e-mail your comments to [email protected])