PEACETALK: Transforming the Facilitation in the Mindanao Peace Process. By Kamarulzaman 'Zam' Askandar

PENANG, Malaysia (MindaNews/21 November) — To many interested observers and students of peace like me, a conflict like the GRP-MILF conflict in Mindanao ‘seems’ to possess all the necessary ingredients for peace. However, at closer scrutiny, problems are evident and the formulas somehow lack the final ingredients to make them work. The current stalled status of the peace talks and the complaints from the Philippines government (GRP) about the Malaysian Facilitator and the facilitation process is just an example of the problems that have plagued this peace process and will need to be sorted out quickly.

Calls are currently being made, including by members of the GRP peace panel themselves, (current and former) to remove the Facilitator, and arguments are being put forth that the problem of the stalled peace process lies with the appointed Facilitator and the facilitation process which is accused as being partial. Malaysia is being criticized for not making the changes as requested and previous calls of replacing Malaysia with another country are slowly resurfacing again.

The current impasse and the finger pointing being made now have given rise to many interesting questions. What is really the alleged problem with the facilitator and the facilitation process? Has the facilitator really been biased and are there proofs to back this up? Are there any (other) reasons why this is being brought out in the open now when it is crucial to get the peace talks going immediately? How does this bode for the future of the peace process, including the role of Malaysia as the host of the talks?

Common sense (as well as all the text books on third party intervention) dictates that a third party will have to be accepted by the conflicting parties. The third party also needs to show that it has the knowledge about the conflict; the know-how, skill, and patience of doing facilitation and mediation; the capacity to reach out to both parties and act as a bridge between tem; the backing and support of the constituents at all levels; and the wisdom to bring out the best of the parties and ensure that a just and fair solution is finally achieved. Impartiality is important too, but if by being impartial means that a just and fair solution is not achieved, and that the more dominant party in an asymmetric conflict gets to dictate the process to its advantage, or that it gets to decide if and when it wants to be cooperative or not, or even to become a spoiler itself, then impartiality of the third party does not mean anything.

Malaysia started out as the facilitator of the GRP-MILF peace process on the invitation of the conflict parties. Since the beginning of the process, the Office of the Prime Minister and especially the Research Department (OPM-RD) has been tasked to handle the facilitation. The Director General of this RD office assembles a team from the department to help him carry out the facilitation duties. He himself then acts as the Facilitator upon appointment by the Prime Minister. Dato’ Othman Razak was the previous Director General of this office and was given the task of being the Facilitator. He continues with this appointment even when he retired from being the Director General. His current official position is the Advisor to the Prime Minister, tasked with among others, the facilitation of the GRP-MILF peace process. As he is appointed by the Prime Minister, only the Prime Minister can remove him from this duty.

Throughout the peace process, the Malaysian team has diligently worked on finding a just and fair solution to the Mindanao problem. As is the case with any peace processes, the work has not been smooth sailing all the way. The work has been made easy when the parties themselves have been sincere about moving forward. The first two agreements to accept ceasefire and to start socio-economic programs for the Bangsamoro were easily achieved. The third point, on ancestral domain, was much more difficult. Even then, to the Malaysian team, it was still a success because they managed to overcome the hurdles and was able to convince the parties to initial the MOA-AD agreement. All that they need to do now is to convene the parties and other stakeholders and observers to sign the agreement in a formal event. This wish to celebrate the momentous occasion in August 2008 proved to be their downfall as the spoilers quickly got news of this and managed to stall the signing and eventually derail the whole peace process, which was eventually declared unconstitutional and illegal. The facilitation team, as was all others following the process, was utterly disappointed and disillusioned. The team felt betrayed by the GRP and especially the GMA administration for being left with the task of picking up the pieces of this failed effort. They were asking for support from this administration for the process and they felt that this support was not forthcoming. Many people in Malaysia also questioned the sincerity of the GRP and especially the President herself for allowing the process to collapse. They were also bitterly disappointed that after spending so much energy, time, and money doing the facilitation and supporting monitoring work on the ground, their own sincerity, capability, commitment, and impartiality are being questioned by the Philippine public. They felt like giving up when calls were made by some quarters to remove them and replace them with another country. In fact, some groups in Malaysia were saying quietly that the whole exercise is useless and that they have no place being there. If Malaysia is not wanted, then Malaysia should honorably leave. But calmer heads prevailed and it was pointed out that even if Malaysia does not take into account the time, energy, and money spent in helping out the Philippines solve this issue, Malaysia still has a responsibility as a neighbouring country to ensure that peace and justice prevail in Mindanao. It was also pointed out that the conflict has forced hundreds of thousands of refugees to flee Southern Philippines since the time of martial law in the early 1970’s and until the conflict is finally resolved, this trend will not stop.

The problem is how to restart. Innovations were made to the process and international guarantors were brought in, in the form of the International Contact Group (ICG). This was supposed to provide support and ideas for the process, but also meant to ensure compliance with agreements made. A civilian protection mechanism was also introduced to protect the victims on the ground. Everything seems set to continue. The presidential election in the Philippines put a delay to the progress of the process. But promises were made to start the process as soon as possible, and to fulfill the commitments and pledges made. Somehow, the process has yet to continue and fingers are now being pointed to Malaysia and especially to the Facilitator himself as the problem. Is this finger pointing proper? This lengthy discussion on the peace process intends to show that the problem might not necessarily be with the facilitation team, nor with the Facilitator himself, but might be with sincerity in finding a just and fair solution to the problem.

My own conclusion from observing this peace process is that even if there are problems with the process, including the facilitation process, the facilitation team has been fair in the pursuit of a just and fair solution for all. The ill-fated MOA-AD was a good piece of document creatively crafted by the parties with support from the facilitation team. The facilitation team sincerely believed that peace in Mindanao could have been achieved if that document was officially signed in 2008. It would have provided the best stepping stone for the next rounds of talks.

Another conclusion is that the facilitation team, and especially the Facilitator himself, have made efforts to ensure that any agreement signed is just and fair to everyone. It is their belief that coming up with a flawed, incomplete agreement is useless. This process should not repeat the mistakes of the previous GRP-MNLF process, in which an agreement was signed and implemented but the problem has not been resolved. The MILF will not accept such an agreement and are willing to continue their struggle to get justice, even to go to war. The Facilitator and his team wanted to prevent this from happening at all cost. If it means that they have to be a bit undiplomatic in their ways, or vigilant in regards to the moves and maneuvers of the parties especially the more dominant party in this asymmetric conflict, so be it. The goal is, to repeat, to get a just and fair solution within the boundaries and scope of the process. Not to please the parties. The solution itself should please the parties as it brings promises of peace for all. To the minds of the Facilitator and his team, not getting a just and fair solution to the Bangsamoro problem would surely result in the continuation of the conflict and even war, bringing suffering to all. I believe that the Facilitator is firmed in his resolve not to allow this to happen and in so doing has opened up opportunities for his detractors on the GRP side to accuse him of being partial and to have him removed.

In regards to the current impasse on the position of the Facilitator, the problem is sad but not without solution. As mentioned above, the Facilitator is appointed by the Prime Minister of Malaysia. The PM and all the people I’ve talked to believe that Dato’ Othman is still the best person to lead the facilitation. He has the experience, the knowledge, and the team to move forward the process. His style and personality might not be acceptable to the GRP but at the end of the day how would we know what kind of personality might we get from the next Facilitator. It is also known that he has no chemistry with the current panel unlike with the previous panels.

By going to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) and bypassing the OPM-RD, the GRP is actually making a mistake. It is understandable that the GRP sees this as a government to government communication and hopes that whatever is passed on will be conveyed to the PM’s office, but it does not necessarily work that way in Malaysia. Worse, it can be seen as an insult to the facilitating office at the RD and to the PM’s Office itself. The intention of persuading the MOFA to take up the facilitating role will also not be successful as the knowledge and capacity for facilitation work in the Mindanao peace process is in the OPM-RD. The trust of the PM is in the OPM-RD. MOFA is a far off option.

The PM knows that he has to do something quickly about this current impasse in the peace process as people will be faulting Malaysia with delaying the process. Malaysia still wants to be involved as the facilitator of the process. Talks about replacing Malaysia with Indonesia or other countries have deeply offended the Malaysian, and no way will they allow this to happen. Despite having reappointed Dato’ Othman as the Facilitator, the PM can still review his decision, given the current situation. The PM will definitely gather his advisors together to come up with a plan, if he has not done so already. There will be several options. One is to insist that the current Facilitator, Dato’ Othman, and his team at the OPM-RD stay, as requested by the MILF. This is easy because Dato’ Othman, despite his frequent frustrations, still wants to stay on and continue his work. He has put in a lot of himself in this process and wants to ensure that it is successful. Retaining Dato’ Othman can also ensure continuity in the process at a crucial time when creative solutions need to be achieved in the aftermath of the MOA-AD debacle. This is also crucial when a new set of players have just been introduced on the GRP side. This however will result in the continuation of this current stalemate, and Malaysia will definitely be blamed by the GRP and observers in the Philippines and elsewhere. Demands to replace Malaysia as the facilitator will surely increase. The situation will be made more complex because the MILF has already announced that they want Malaysia to continue as the facilitator. Introducing a new facilitating country will totally collapse the peace process with possible dire circumstances for all.

The second option is to replace Dato’ Othman as the Facilitator. A person who is acceptable to both sides and who has the knowledge, capacity, and diplomatic skills to lead the process to a just and fair solution can be appointed by the Malaysian PM. This is not difficult to do. There are a number of qualified and prominent Malaysians who can fulfill this role. The best thing to do is however to appoint from within the OPM-RD office. Preferable somebody who has an inside knowledge of the process. He/She will still have the institutional memory provided by the facilitating team at the OPM-RD and should not have any problem of continuity. A panel of Advisors should also be set up to assist and provide support to the new Facilitator and the facilitating team. Dato’ Othman should be the first name to go on the list of Advisors. His knowledge and experience will be very much appreciated there. It will also give him an honourable exit while still playing a very important role in the process. I believe that he knows that the cause of peace is more important than one person and that his sacrifices will be remembered by all.

This second option will definitely break the current stalemate with the GRP and prevent Malaysia from being accused as a spoiler in the peace process. It can also provide an added incentive to move the process faster. Caution has to be taken though to ensure that there is no further delaying tactic on either sides, and that the building blocks remain intact. The process has taken a long time to reach this stage and even if the structure of the process including the Facilitator has changed, previous achievements should still be honoured and used as stepping stones to move forward. [Professor Kamarulzaman ‘Zam’ Askandar of Penang, Malaysia is Coordinator of the  Research and Education for Peace, Universiti Sains Malaysia (REPUSM) and the Regional Coordinator of the Southeast Asian Conflict Studies Network (SEACSN).  He has visited Mindanao several times and has written extensively on the GRP-MILF peace process]