KUALA LUMPUR — Since the International Contact Group was formed in late 2009 to work with the Malaysian Facilitator in peace talks between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), I have traveled back and forth to Kuala Lumpur often. While many aspects of the talks seem to never change (same participants, same venue, often the same issues) the feeling has been different since early February, when the tragic imbroglio in Sabah erupted, with armed followers of Sultan Jamalul Kiram III of Sulu entering Sabah, followed by a Malaysian security operation in which dozens were killed and hundreds arrested.
A quick perusal in March of Malaysia’s New Sunday Times showed how seriously the event was being taken – in a single issue, the cover story and 18 other stories covered the situation on the ground in various locations, the reaction of frightened residents, and the need to support the security forces (of whom nine have been killed). These were the first security operations of this nature in Malaysia for decades, since the end of the communist insurgency, and the Malaysian public is not accustomed to this kind of thing. On the other hand, in the Philippines, it is less than five years since the MOA-AD debacle in 2008 resulted in 400 deaths and 750,000 internally displaced persons, so this kind of news is more common.
There has been both criticism and praise for the Aquino administration’s handling of the affair, and given that we have the May 13 elections coming soon there has been inevitable politicking around the issue. While the mainstream media coverage in Malaysia has been of a uniform tone, that is far from the case in the Philippines. Coverage ranged from sympathy for the Sultan to outrage over the chutzpah required to send the “Royal Army of Sulu” across internationally recognized borders. There has been both criticism and praise for the Aquino administration’s handling of the affair, and given that we have the May 13 elections coming soon there has been inevitable politicking around the issue. In a similar vein, Malaysia’s prime minister just announced that he had dissolved parliament to pave way for elections May 5, driving Sabah into the background. The April 7 edition of the New Sunday Times only had three related stories, mostly about the need to support security forces.
There is an obvious question of the effect of all this on the facilitation by Malaysia of peace talks between the government and the MILF. Some have called into question the whole notion of Malaysia acting as a neutral facilitator given the Philippines’ claim (though long-dormant) over Sabah (as successor-in-interest to the Sultan of Sulu), and particularly in the context of deaths of Filipino citizens. Ohers say that there is no reason to re-think what has been mostly an effective process at reaching an agreement.
The parties are now working on four annexes to the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro, trying to get a Comprehensive Agreement as the basis for the newly convened Transition Commission to draft a Basic Law. The 37th round of talks was postponed for two weeks, at the request of the Aquino administration, and speculation was rife that this was due to Sabah. The government panel stoutly denied this, even in private, saying that internal discussions had been entirely about the substance of the annexes on Wealth Sharing and Power Sharing. (The Annex on Transitional Arrangements and Modalities has been signed, while the Annex on Normalization is still the subject of discussion in a Technical Working Group.)
What is clear is that the original timeline – with the Annexes to be accomplished in late 2012 – has slipped, and the attention of both countries will soon be overtaken by electoral considerations. The Sultan of Sulu has (perhaps unintentionally) come across as a “spoiler” in the process by instigating events in Sabah that turned violent. The Founding Chair Nur Misuari of the Moro National Liberation Front (from which the MILF split) has always objected to the MILF peace process (in the light of the 1996 Final Peace Agreement that the MNLF reached with the government) and now he has seized on the current series of Sabah/Sulu events and once again flaunted armed followers. MILF Peace Panel Chair Iqbal has warned that haste must be made to outpace the spoilers, and has expressed the view that the Annexes can be completed before the May 13 Philippine elections. GPH Peace Panel Chair Ferrer, for her part, spoke of the administrating, taking care to examine all the annexes so as to be able to sign them confidently.
If that is accomplished, we can turn our attention to the implementation of the agreement, with the goal of normal operation of the new government in the Bangsamoro by 2016. That will also be a difficult journey. (Steven Rood is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in the Philippines, and represents the Foundation as part of the International Contact Group for the GPH-MILF negotiations. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation. This piece first appeared in The Asia Foundation’s “In Asia weekly insight and analysis” http://asiafoundation.org/in-asia/2013/04/10/philippine-peace-process-forges-ahead-in-malaysia-despite-sabah-conflict/. Permission to reprint granted by the author)