COMMENT: Behind IMT pull-out: finger-pointing. By Patricio P. Diaz

At a glance, the suspension of the GRP-MILF peace negotiation the Malaysian government has been hosting triggered the pullout.  The MILF blames the impasse on the GRP for backing out of an agreement its panel has signed and for delaying the resumption of the talk; but the GRP tosses back the blame to the MILF and also Malaysia for trying to pressure it to violate the Constitution.

Is the finger-pointing necessary?

Commitment

The impasse is unbelievably inconsistent with the GRP-MILF commitment to peace. Like a sacred wedding vow, it was pledged and renewed after it had been broken.

In their "General Framework of Agreement of Intent" (August 27, 1998) they recognized "the need for a negotiated political settlement to bring an end to the armed conflict in Mindanao" and "to contribute toward that end and to promote an enduring peace and stability…"

In Article I of that Agreement, they committed "to pursue the peace negotiations on the substantive issues as soon as possible, and resolutely continue the negotiations until the Parties reach a negotiated political settlement."

The MILF broke off when the Estrada government waged the April 2000 all-out war but soon resumed the talk with the Arroyo government under the sponsorship and guidance of Malaysia.

In their "Agreement on the General Framework for the Resumption of the Peace Talks" (Kuala Lumpur, March 24, 2001), they recognized "the need to resume their stalled peace talks in order to end the armed hostilities … and achieve a negotiated political settlement … thereby promoting peace and stability …".

In Article I of the Agreement, they agreed "to resume the stalled peace negotiations … and continue the same from where it had stopped before April 27, 2000 until they shall have reached a negotiated political settlement …"

It should be noted well: The same promise in 1998, they renewed in 2001. After almost eight years of rough sailing, the talk stalled again; the promise is now on the rocks.  How did this trigger Malaysia's pullout from the IMT and the finger-pointing?

Vital Roles

Malaysia's own commitment to help make the GRP-MLF peace talk a success should be highly appreciated.  While it is a member of the Organization of Islamic Conference, its involvement is not on the behalf of the OIC but in response to the request of the Arroyo government.

Malaysia has two very vital roles in the peace process.  As talk host and sponsor, it offers the venue and facilities for the talk; it is the go-between, the referee, and mediator in the resolution of contentious issues. At the same time, by GRP-MILF agreement, it is the head of IMT.

Contingent to – and a very big must – to the success of the peace talk is the cessation of hostilities between the GRP and the MILF forces. This is so that, in 1998 and 2001, the ceasefire agreements were first signed before the holding of the formal talks.

However, the ceasefire agreement did not prevent the break out of hostilities.  In the ceasefire implementing guidelines of 2001, OIC Monitoring Team was created to support the GRP and MILF Coordinating Committees on Cessation of Hostilities and the Local Monitoring Teams, the implementing mechanisms since 1997. The team, however, was activated only in 2004.

In the "Terms of Reference" (Kuala Lumpur, September 2004) to activate the team, "OIC" was changed to "International", IMT instead of OMT. The change allowed the participation of non-OIC countries in the peace-keeping according to the UN mandate.  The designation in the TOR of Malaysia as IMT head (Provision 2) is as vital as its hosting the negotiation.

A Gambit?

Last February 19-22, two months after the talk had broken down, Malaysian facilitator Datuk Othman bin Abdulrazak shuttled between Manila and Darapanan, the MILF central office in Sultan Kudarat, Shariff Kabunsuan, to reconcile the GRP and MILF positions on Ancestral Domain, the last of the three main talk agenda. He succeeded with some minor points to iron out.

Othman informed the two parties that the talk could resume after March 24 with the hope that a Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain could be signed by the end of March. But Manila balked, forming instead a legal team to study further the constitutionality of the draft memorandum agreement.

On April 24, Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Mohammad bin Tun Razak announced in Bernama, the national news agency, the phased withdrawal of the Malaysian IMT troops starting May – a confirmation of the April 21 statement of Foreign Minister Rais Yatim in the same agency. They sounded exasperated.

Najib: "A decision has been made on our presence there … we cannot be there forever." Earlier, in November, he told the GRP and MILF panel chairmen, "The IMT cannot stay in Mindanao forever; something big has to happen to the peace process."

Rais: "We have to get cooperation from both sides.  But if one party is not making the effort, we will have to end the mission."

Malaysia must have been diplomatically slighted.  Othman has a cabinet rank under the Office of the Prime Minister, the equal of the Office of the President. He witnessed the signing by the GRP and MILF panels of the consensus points on Ancestral Domain which Manila repudiated within the ensuing month. This and Manila's disregard of his February "shuttle diplomacy"  amounted to an insult to an equal from an equal.

But Malaysia will not abandon its commitment to the Philippine peace process – assuring to continue facilitating the negotiation and possibly to continue leading the IMT under a new "format". Yet, its phased pullout from the IMT can lead to the total collapse of the peace process.  Is the pullout a gambit to prod the GRP and MILF to
return to the negotiation table?

It is, Othman said, and particularly "meant to send a signal" to Philippine authorities to speed up efforts to sign a formal peace pact with the MILF (GMANews.TV, May 2, 2008)'.

RP to Blame

However, Malaysia cannot hide its exasperation with the GRP – blaming it for the impasse. Othman was very critical in his statements to local and foreign media.

He said on several occasions: "If the government wants the talks to progress, it can do it.  It can think creatively.  But if it wants to ‘stick to the constitution, things will not move. The trouble is that things are not moving in the talks." He described the RP government as "sitting on the ball in its court", stressing: "It really boils down
to the political will of the government."

The MILF leaders sound more exasperated and frustrated as well, accusing the government of intentionally delaying the talks and of taking back what they have conceded — "citing legal or constitutional constraints".  They twitted the government's arguments as ridiculous.

Essentially, explained Jun Mantawil, head of MILF peace panel secretariat, the GRP violated Provision 8(2) of IMT-TOR by continuously sitting on the peace talks and intentionally delaying its resumption; and, Provision 8(3), by deliberately ignoring the call of the Malaysian facilitator to resume the talks immediately. These justified the Malaysian pullout.

However, the cabinet secretaries composing the Security Cluster and the head of the GRP negotiating panel are one in defending the government's stand – maintaining that the peace agreement must be within the framework of the Constitution, a non-negotiable position.

Secretary Rodolfo Garcia, GRP panel chair, clarified: "… we are not sitting down on this issue (Ancestral Domain) and purposely delaying the peace processes. The government wants to see to it and ensure that what it would agree on with the MILF … would pass public scrutiny and capture public support."  The appeal is obvious: patience and understanding.

While they are not saying so, they are really blaming the impasse on the MILF for wanting the government to violate the Constitution – and blaming, too, Malaysia for taking the MILF side. The government could have signed the MOA on Ancestral Domain had the constitutionality of the draft agreement not been questionable – calling for a legal team to study it.

Question

The volumes of media reports would show the government to be as exasperated as the MILF. And they all three are adamant.  How long will the finger-pointing continue? Will Malaysia's gambit work? Behind these questions lies the fate of the GRP-MILF peace agreement.

The finger-pointing and the gambit could not have happened had GRP and MILF honored and strictly adhered to their commitments in the many agreements they have signed since 1997.  In reality, however, the finger-pointing exposes their questionable sincerity.

How sincere are the MILF and the GRP in negotiating to let peace, security and prosperity reign in Muslim Mindanao? Take it from the horses' mouths. ("Comment" is Mr. Patricio P. Diaz' column for MindaViews, the opinion section of MindaNews. The Titus Brandsma Media Awards recently 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])

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