COMMENT: Doing the Damage Control

GENERAL SANTOS CITY (MindaNews/23 August)– The 39th Exploratory Talks between the Philippine Government and Moro Islamic Liberation Front peace panels opened in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia yesterday morning and will end on Sunday, August 25.  The main agendum of the four-day meeting is the annex on power-sharing.

MILF Panel Chair Mohagher Iqbal sent us a copy of his “Opening Statement” unusually early – e-mailed “to you + 2 more” at 7:53 p.m. August 21 with a note “Embargo until 10 am tomorrow” , a request to hold publication until 10 in the morning of August 22, the opening of the meeting. This is a departure from the past when he e-mailed his opening statements to a big number of friends a day after delivering it.

The earliness this time reflects the urgency of the 39th Exploratory Talks and of the need to seal the Comprehensive Peace Agreement and clear the way for the entrenchment of Bangsamoro as agreed – by the time President Benigno Simeon C. Aquino III steps down on June 30, 2016.

At the outset, Iqbal paid tribute to the members of the MILF peace panel and team since 1997 who had died or who had become incapacitated due to the “long and harsh nature of the negotiation”. Their sacrifices call for “the need to finish this process soon,” he stressed – referring to the same sacrifices of government negotiators in the past.

He warned of “spoilers and enemies of the peace process” who are taking advantage of the delay to scuttle the peace process and render meaningless the sacrifices of the Government and MILF peace negotiators. To foil these “spoilers” and “enemies”, he spelled out the answer:

  • First, “… finish the remaining issues and sign the comprehensive peace agreement (CPA). Once the agreement is sealed, it would be very difficult for them to destroy it.”
  • Second, the CPA will strengthen “… the partnership between the government and MILF.”
  • Third, together, Government and MILF “… can proceed to consolidate the gains of the process including the strengthening of all the organs of the peace process and finally those of the Bangsamoro Transition Commission (BTC) and Bangsamoro Transition Authority (BTA).”
  • Fourth, he hoped that “… by 2016 … the Bangsamoro government will be put into place.”

He believes that after the materialization of the four realities, the complete answer follows: “Once this government is fully entrenched and functional, the problems that we are encountering now will gradually be eased out and those still opposing or fighting the government will be deprived of legitimacy and of popular support. ‘Take away the water,’ a famous Chinese revolutionary adage says, ‘the fish will die’.”

MILF Chair Murad Ebrahim told the civil societies during a conference last July 25 that the MILF would explore all means to hasten the negotiation on the power-sharing annex because further delays would adversely affect the installation of the Bangsamoro. This was one potent way of “damage control”.

Iqbal must be alluding to the delay in the FAB timetable, its adverse effects and to “doing damage control” when he referred to as “the more urgent side” his report addressed especially to “His Excellency, the Malaysian Facilitator, my good counterpart from government, Prof. Miriam Coronel-Ferrer, as well as the Malaysian Secretariat, and members of the International Contact Group (ICG)”.

The BTC “had already met four times and we [Note: Iqbal as chairman of BTC refers to it as “we”] are happy to inform you that”:

(1)  ”[W]e have officially adopted and approved our internal rules, logo, and calendar of activities. We have also formally organized the various committees of the BTC.”

(2)  “Fully conscious of the need to move fast and race against time, we have already formally tasked the Committee on Fiscal Autonomy and Committee on Transitory Provision to work in full blast since all the necessary materials are practically at their disposal already.”

(3)  “However, the three other committees (Political; Security, justice, and culture; and Amendments) are on standby mode because much of the materials they need to craft that part of the Bangsamoro Basic Law are still tied up to the Annex on Wealth-sharing  (sic: Power-sharing?) and Normalization.”

In reference to (3), he said: “It is in this context that the remaining annexes must be settled and fixed now by the parties. The BTC cannot write the BBL in its wholeness except when all the annexes or CPA is signed by the parties.”

While trying to do what it can to start drafting the BBL, the BTC cannot do more than what it has already done. Even the two committees in (2) will surely be handicapped in working “full blast”. EO No. 120, s. 2012 creating the BTC, the FAB and the Annex on Transitional Arrangement and Modalities all provide that the BBL is based on the CPA.

He appealed: “As chair of the BTC, I appeal to the government and MILF to fast track their negotiation and, without delay, sign the remaining two annexes and finally the CPA. The year 2013 is about to end and very soon 2014 comes and similarly surely passes by. We cannot afford to delay the completion of the peace process. We must act now before it is too late. Time flies away and it never comes back.”

He clarified the MILF desire, constraint and position: “Yet, while we in the MILF would like to see this done we also have to underscore the fact that every issue and every bone of contention in the peace negotiation have to be settled within the framework of justice so as to achieve an enduring peace. It is on this very principle that we have agreed from the very beginning of the political negotiation to engage the government on the negotiating table and eventually as our partners to address and resolve the Bangsamoro Question.”

Iqbal ends his “Statement” in a very optimistic tone:

“To me, the only barrier that we cannot do this or complete the process is if the two parties or either one of them is changing its course, say, it is no longer interested to finish it. By then, the remaining terms of office of President Aquino is so short and fleeting to just dribble the talks, which I firmly believe is never the case. Our trust in the President is fully intact. We know that he is as fully committed as the MILF in wrapping up the process soon and not later.

“Frankly speaking, I am seeing a ray of hope that the Annex on Power-sharing will be settled and signed by the parties during this meeting. I see no clear reasons why this should be delayed any longer since it has been the subject of negotiation more than a year ago.”

He sees the work of the Parties after the Annex on Power-sharing as anti-climactic.

“Once this annex is settled, we can pour all our remaining stamina on normalization, an issue that is not too difficult to overcome by willing and committed peace partners. After all, the end state that we all desire in this peace process is for peace, justice, and development to reign in our lands.”

The optimistic picture is: The Annex on Power-sharing will be signed on Sunday, August 25. In September, next month, the Annex on Normalization will be signed during the 40th Exploratory Talks. In October, the Parties will tackle the CA which will be signed by November or December. The urgency is for all – including the “spoilers” and “enemies” of the peace process to see this picture.

The BTC can go full-blast starting January 2014, if not this December. But, until then it has to do what damage control in can do. From that time, there will be 30 months left of the Aquino administration. That will call for a lot of optimism and, perhaps, a lot more of doing damage control to entrench the Bangsamoro as MILF has envisioned. (“Comment” is Mr. Patricio P. Diaz’ column for MindaViews, the opinion section of MindaNews. The Titus Brandsma Media Awards honored Mr. Diaz with a “Lifetime Achievement Award” for his “commitment to education and public information to Mindanawons as Journalist, Educator and Peace Advocate.” You can reach him at [email protected])