PEACETALK: Let's all be patient By Jesus G. Dureza

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/16 November) — I heard so many people asking what is happening to President Noynoy’s bold announcement that peace talks with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) will start right after Ramadan? Many are indeed asking. Not only Mindanawons who are keenly following the peace process are experiencing discomforts by the perceived delay. I suspect that even some MILF elements and supporters are becoming anxious and restless.

My advice to all: please, let’s all be patient. I tell you, it is not so easy to re-start the peace talks especially in the manner it was disrupted when the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD) was stricken down by the Supreme Court. And we have a new administration that has just mounted the saddle but is still unfamiliar on how to get the horse to start trotting.

The onset of a new group of players, especially on the government side is a big factor. A new panel will have to establish its footing not only with the issues involved. It has to set up its own network that will link up with the stakeholders — and this is not a simple task knowing the diversity of the different sectors of Mindanao, many of them demanding that their voices be heard too.

I have always said that while negotiating with the rebels on the other side of the table is not a walk in the park, it is as equally sensitive – and in fact more difficult – to “negotiate” with the parties on our side of the table. Let me explain.

The new government panel will have to get its negotiating directives, loud and clear, from no less than the President himself. The Presidential Peace Adviser, although in charge of the whole exercise, only advises, or gives recommendations. The new panel chair strategizes and cuts the deal. But the President pushes the button to give the green light.

The more difficult process is when the President first consults with the security sector of the Cabinet on the issues and the negotiating items. That’s where things can get stuck. I have gone through this wringer many times in the past and I tell you, unless the President no less makes the judgment call finally, things will not move. The defense department will usually buck with the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) having discreet reservations.

Then the Department of Interior and Local Governments (DILG) makes a pitch for the local governments whose positions are usually aligned with sustainability factors, meaning the political leaders must play. Then the Justice Department legally chews on it, then Foreign Affairs factors in the diplomatic and high level sovereignty issues, etc.

If President Noynoy consults with his team, many of them had some negativities on the Mindanao negotiations. Foremost of them is former Senator Mar Roxas who petitioned the Supreme Court against the MOA-AD, etc, etc.

At the end of the day, it usually ends up with no clear consensus. That’s the time when the President comes in and says: “This is it!” and everybody must follow. That’s what I mean when I said negotiating with our side of the table is at times more difficult than dealing with the rebels across the table. But the bottom line is: it’s the President’s call. No more, no less. I’ve seen this scenario playing out many times in the past.

At this time, I am getting the impression that President Noynoy has not reached that stage yet where he fully sees and understands all the nuances of the issues. He is not ready yet to grab the bull by the horns and give everyone his marching orders. Not yet, I think.

Then, the more complicated issue of facilitation by Malaysia must be given focus and resolved. Knowing what happened in the past, I am sure Malaysia will not yet merrily roll its sleeves and give it another try unless its doubts are cleared in the highest levels.

Meaning, Pres. Noynoy and Prime Minster Najib must first meet and make clear understanding on how to proceed and what to expect as an end game. Let’s not discount the fact that in the Malaysian bureaucracy, there are already “doubters” on whether it is for the best interest of Malaysia to continue – at great financial and moral cost – assisting the Philippine peace process. I got reliable word that Malaysian facilitator Datu Othman bin Razak may be replaced so that makes the peace talks more difficult to re-start.

And what about the “back channeling” efforts that are so crucial in peace negotiations? I am sure this is in the works because we all know the indispensability of a “second table” in peace negotiations. The “formal table” is where positions are ventilated and officially discussed and formally adopted, sealed and signed. But a backroom “second table” is where contentious issues are resolved and consensus quietly arrived at for the “formal table” to adopt. This is where the real action takes place.

This is only one half of the story. There are other factors that are interplaying with this not so simple process of finding mutually acceptable consensus points on unresolved and controversial issues that date far back generations ago.

Simply said: let’s all be patient and allow the new government and the new players to work on this. We need not rush things. Let’s give the President time to internalize this so he gives the correct judgment call. He needs time. Mindanao and its unique nuances are new to him. Let’s also give the new peace panel time to establish its footing on the issues and know the environment within which they will negotiate for us. Let us also give them more time to seek a certain level of comfort and credence with their MILF counterparts. I am sure both sides are anxious to first mutually establish a certain level of relationship with each other. After all, they have many years ahead to work things out.

The task is not easy, my friends. Take it from me. I was there for many years!

(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Peacetalk is open to anyone who wants to share his/her views on the peace process. Lawyer Jesus G. Dureza was government peace panel chair in the negotiations with the MILF under the Arroyo administration from 2001 to 2003 and was later named Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (2005 to 2008). He heads Advocacy MindaNOW Foundation, Inc. and was recently named publisher of the Davao City-based Mindanao Times. This piece is from his syndicated column, Advocacy MindaNOW).

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