COMMENT: Racing against Time (7). By Patricio P. Diaz

(7th of a series)

GENERAL SANTOS CITY (MindaNews/27 November) —  Feedback from Malaysia is clear: The facilitation issue hurts. Yet, as a good neighbor, Malaysia is determined to keep its facilitation role which has obviously become a self-imposed commitment – in the “we are more concerned than thou” tone — for the sake of peace in Mindanao. Expect some anti-Malaysia critics to react: “Really!… for the sake of peace in Mindanao or of its national interest?”

Outlook Uncertain

As it has been played up, Malaysia as third-party facilitator is not at issue; Datok Othman as Facilitator is. The MILF Central Committee has formally resolved the MILF option to retain both Malaysia and Othman. The GRP Peace Panel has formally communicated to Malaysia its objection to Othman’s retention; as the Panel is not comfortable with him, it cannot work with him. Malaysia still sees Othman as the best person to facilitate but may consider replacing him with one acceptable to the GRP and MILF if necessary.

While facts on the Malaysia facilitation issue appear to have crystallized, the situation remains unclear and the outlook is uncertain. The resolution of the Othman issue can bog down on the phrase “most comfortable.” Both GRP and MILF may accept Othman’s replacement; but what if later the GRP would feel uncomfortable with him?

The hard reality, however, is: Most crucial to the resumption and eventual success of the GRP-MILF peace negotiation is the meeting of minds. On the part of the MILF, the talks must re-start from where it stopped under the same facilitation and negotiation processes; on that of the GRP, let’s first review those processes. That is what can imperil the peace process, not just delay the resumption of the negotiations.

Hence, the question: Where to?

The Only Way

Chairman Al Haj Murad Ebrahim revealed the MILF’s direction at the MILF-FOCAP Forum in Darapanan on August 9, 2010 with the foreign correspondents and local media in attendance. In one word: Continuity – continue “To Solve the Bangsamoro Problem” as agreed 13 years ago.

During the 13 years since 1997, Murad said, “87 or so documents of various nature and importance” have been signed; one “landmark document” – the MOA-AD – has been initialed; and later, [after this had been declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court], GRP and MILF committed “to reframe [its] consensus points with the end in view of moving towards the comprehensive compact to bring about a negotiated political settlement”.

This commitment was embodied in the last document, the “Declaration of Continuity for Peace Negotiation”, the Arroyo GRP and the MILF signed on June 3, 2010. Referring to this, Murad said: “For the MILF, the only way in the peace process is forward in order to complete the peace talks where we left off last June 3, this year.”

He criticized what he saw of the Aquino government’s direction: “But for the government, it seems they are still trying to catch up with their breath on which way to go.  Hints are piling up that they want to start the talks from scratch, want to localize the talks, and to replace the facilitator of the talks.  If true, these are serious propositions that can delay or even imperil the peace talks.”

Where to? Negotiate the final document, the Comprehensive Compact, using as the reframed MOA-AD as framework reference. Malaysia is one with the MILF. Partisan?

Move Forward

GRP Peace Panel Chair UP Law Dean Marvic Leonen, in speeches at the FOCAP news forum (August 14) and the National Solidarity Conference for Mindanao (August 13) in Quezon City: “Our marching orders are to move forward and to move forward with due deliberation and sincerity.” This must be the mandate in essence of the negotiating panel alluded to below (See: On where to start the talks.)

As it now stands, the orders mean they have to first ascertain the status of the peace talks in order to know how to move forward. Leonen: “It is expected of us to review with due diligence all the agreements that have been signed. This does not mean that we will reject them – it only means that we are in the process of increasing our understanding of the implications and meaning of the provisions.”

And the review is comprehensive: “In this regard, we are not limited in our review to the agreements that were signed.  We have read government’s internal reports and are receiving briefings from the relevant personalities.  Soon, we will proceed to review the official minutes of the negotiations of the past nine years.”

Nothing could be more reassuring. The MILF and Malaysia should appreciate and match that with their own “due diligence”. In stating the above, Leonen addressed Murad’s first “fear”: “We do not intend to start from scratch;” and intimated that by such the Aquino government “can more effectively and efficiently comply with the obligations that have been committed by the past administration”.

Leonen said more that (1) can either dispel or impel other “fears” perceived to delay or imperil the peace talks: localize the talks and replace the current facilitator of the talks [which has already been clarified]; and, (2) elicit questions.

On Malaysia’s facilitation:

Leonen: “The current peace talks address a domestic situation with international interest.” What does “international interest” mean? Does it refer to the perception that Malaysia accepted Arroyo’s request for help with the Philippine Sabah claim as a trade off? Or does it refer to international involvement the peace talks have generated?

When he stated that the facilitator “should facilitate discussion, it should not dominate the conversation”, Leonen was referring more to Malaysia than to Othman — referring to the “facilitator” using the pronoun “it”, not “he”. GRP is not comfortable with Malaysia – not just Othman – for dominating the negotiation.

Notwithstanding its agreeing to retain Malaysia as the third-party facilitator, it appears the Aquino government really wants Malaysia changed.

On international involvement:

Two statements on the “realpolitik in international relations” are enigmatic:

(1)   “While expressing our utmost appreciation for all the international actors – state and non-state – that have come to share their time and other resources, we think it is legitimate for a new administration to review whether the current deployment is in harmony with its understanding of national interest.” (Bold supplied)

(2)   “Also, good intentions notwithstanding, too many international actors can work at cross purposes to each other when located within a single ground.  International interest and assistance is welcome, but it is we who will have to make sure that they facilitate rather than – unwittingly – deter an agreement.” (Bold supplied)

To what is the reference? Is it to countries that are involved in the facilitation together with Malaysia – those in the International Contact Group, the International Monitoring Team and its Civilian Protection Component? Is it to all — donor countries under the umbrella of the United Nations Development Programme, international aid agencies of foreign governments and other international including aid agencies? (Next: On where to start the talks)

[“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 for Journalism by the Mindanao Media Forum early November this year. You may e-mail your comments to [email protected])