COMMENT: Racing against Time (8th and last) By Patricio P. Diaz

(8th and last of a series)

GENERAL SANTOS CITY (MindaNews/28 November) —  What really is in the mind of the Aquino government?

On where to start the talks:

(Government peace panel chair Marvic) Leonen concurred with the MILF: “We are eager to start talks on the one substantive agenda: the comprehensive compact,” observing: “We are aware of the drafts exchanged by the parties on January 27, 2010.” Will the reframed MOA-AD be the basis of the negotiation? Or, will GRP have a new proposal?

GRP will have its own proposal; it “will build” it “on three realities”:

First: “that the MILF has expressed that it has dropped its option for independence – that it is not negotiating for independence but the highest form of autonomy; 

Second: “that the submissions of the parties (with Arroyo administration as the other party) are currently poles apart;

Third: “our mandate as framed by the President

In so doing, GRP is considering two MILF positions: (1) it “has rejected certain forms of ‘enhanced autonomy’, and (2) it “has proposed the idea of [the] establishment of a ‘state-sub-state’ form of governance in a future Bangsamoro state.”

On stakeholders and the Constitution:

Leonen asked for MILF understanding of two concerns: (1) the stakeholders; and (2) the Constitution.

Of the first: The Philippines “includes many peoples and identities” which “include many stakeholders represented by various groupings”. This is telling the MILF that in coming to terms with “To Solve the Bangsamoro Problem”, the negotiation will not be confined to the Moro grievances or demands but must consider the rights and interests of all stakeholders to the fullest extent of what that omnibus term – stakeholders – means.

Of the second: What the GRP panel can commit “are measured against [or limited to] the framework of a Constitution” which in his opinion “provides space to find a political settlement including, if necessary and acceptable to all, a process of amendment and revision”. [Obviously answering a forum question, he stated this differently: “Good faith negotiations require that we consider the universe of possibilities.”]

That was promising an open-minded and flexible approach to the constitutionally blocked Bangsamoro Problem. However, Leonen and the Aquino government backtracked when chastised in the media by critics including senators for toying with the dismemberment of the country.

The message is very clear: The Constitution is still the immovable problem contradicting Leonen’s opinion: “I do not see the Constitution as a problem.  I view it as a reality that we should deal with and should also be considered in finding the solution.”

On the review of the process:

The principle as Leonen states: “… attention to the process of the negotiation is as important as the substance of the conversation.  We do not want the process to drive the substantive agenda. We want the process to facilitate it.” (Bold, supplied)

Leonen is not just stating the principle that “any good negotiator knows”. Obviously, he is suggesting what he considers his negotiating team – and wants the MILF team — to be. He is implying that in the past negotiation more attention was given to the process than to the substance of the negotiation.

And, he is proposing to review the process which includes:

(1)   levels of comfort that both negotiating parties have in relation to the parameters of the talks;

(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 of international actors, (g) among others.

By (1) and (2-a to g) above, the Aquino government – taking it from Leonen – wants a

total review of “the parameters of the talks” and the “terms of reference” covering these “parameters” to attain the desired “levels of comfort” for “both negotiating parties” before the resumption of the talks would start.

Leonen posed two crucial challenges: first, to the “current administration” to have “the creativity and political will to effect the necessary changes; second, “to the MILF” to “be open [and] as creative and have the same political will to effect any agreed upon solution”.

How will the Aquino government effect the necessary changes? It cannot take these up with the MILF directly or with Malaysia alone. Under existing protocols, all GRP-MILF conversations must go through Malaysia. All changes in protocols, terms of reference, and other aspects of the negotiation process have to be agreed by both Parties in formal meetings facilitated by Malaysia. Protocols, etc. are as solid a block as the Philippine Constitution.

The really crucial challenge is to the Aquino government –  to have the political will to start the talks under existing protocols, etc. so the total review and necessary changes can be done; until then, creativity is impotent.

Leonen, et al. – most of all President Aquino — may not have realized that by their good intentions they have erected the roadblock. Only they can dismantle it for the talk to start.

The Race

The GRP-MILF negotiation is a race, a sitting – not a running – race. The GRP and MILF teams sit across – not running against — each other to find a political solution to the Bangsamoro Problem. The longer the Problem stays unsolved the worse the peace and development conditions in Muslim Mindanao become — hence, the urgency to find the solution is a joint endeavor — the race that is — of the GRP and MILF against time.

The GRP and MILF teams are situated in different circumstances. The GRP teams represent changing regimes in the Philippine government; they have differing mandates, depending on the policies of the different regimes. The MILF has only one team under an unchanging organization; the composition of the team may change, but the mandate remains the same.

President Ramos started the negotiation in 1997; President Estrada continued it with his own team in 1998 adopting the process and substance and preserving the terms and the gains under Ramos until he decided to wage the 2000 all-out-war; negotiations stopped. Ramos was conciliatory; Estrada was confrontational. The negotiation could have ended had President Arroyo not rescued it with her “all-out peace” policy, reversing Estrada’s “all-out war”.

Arroyo also adopted the process and substance and preserved the terms and gains under Ramos and as well as those under Estrada. She radically changed the process. Inviting Malaysia to facilitate the talks, she internationalized the process. New terms, protocols and internationalization were adopted through facilitation.

Arroyo set June 2004 as the deadline to sign a peace agreement; failing, she reset the   deadline to June 2010. She lost both races against 2004 and 2010. Were the Arroyo GRP and the MILF teams comfortable with each other or with the process? They were. Did they give more attention to the process than the substance? Not so!

The process “facilitated the substance” — steered the talks around deadlocks, suspensions and impasses on substantive issues. The process facilitated the MOA-AD for almost four years; ir was aborted because of substance not of process by forces beyond the control of the facilitator and the GRP and MILF teams.

Now the Aquino government commits to continue the race, promising to win it on or before 2016 – unlike Arroyo, not to pass on the talks to another president. This is a most welcome promise.

Yet, despite the “Move Forward” order to the Aquino peace team, it has not moved – not gaining on 2016 but in fact losing the first five of its 72 months. Before sitting across the table with the MILF team, the Aquino team wants the process reviewed and changes necessary for its comfort made.  It is giving more importance to process than to substance contrary to its avowed principle.

The only way to move forward is start the talks under the current facilitator, process and substance and make the necessary modifications and changes along the way – unless the Aquino government, despite its declaration, really wants to start from scratch.

Let’s wait and see. Will this be done by or in January 2011? The race against 2016 can be won in 66 months – Aquino and Murad willing.  Please, don’t invoke God.

[“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])