COMMENT: Talk revival: Up to whom. By Patricio P. Diaz

Simplistic                                               

Very recently, (Philippine Daily Inquirer, February 10), Rafael Seguis, the new head of the GRP negotiating panel, said that “the revival of the peace talks is up to the MILF”.

That was very simplistic. How ready is the Philippine panel? The PDI reporter, Cynthia D. Balana, should have asked Seguis that question. For transparency, under the new Arroyo policy, the country should know how the new panel will conduct the negotiation.

The new panel has been constituted. But, what will be negotiated? Will the talks start from scratch or from the initialed Memorandum of Agreement on the Ancestral Domain?    

I think to pass the burden of reviving the talks to the MILF is playing it smart. That’s telling the country and the world, “Don’t blame us. We are ready. We have always been ready.”

But I don’t believe the MILF is impressed. It can throw the call back to the GRP. It has not disbanded its negotiating panel. It has not changed its position: Resume the negotiation from where it was interrupted, continuing on to the negotiation of the Comprehensive Compact with the MOA-AD as the talk framework.

How Ready?

It’s not enough for the GRP panel chair to officially notify Malaysia of their readiness “to return to the negotiation table” and tell the PDI, “Now it’s up to the Malaysian facilitator to inform the MILF.” What will Malaysia tell the MILF?

In fact, to prove the GRP’s readiness, Seguis should have handed to the Malaysian facilitator not only the official list of the GRP panel members and supporting staff but, most important, also the proposed talk agenda. Then, there was something concrete Malaysia could have facilitated. Without the above for transmittal to the MILF, the GRP was not ready.

At this point, despite Seguis’ claim of the GRP being ready, we are in the dark. Does the new GRP panel fully understand the roots of the Mindanao problem? How they will frame their proposed talk agenda is the true test.

More significant than being ready to resume the peace talk is the readiness to negotiate according to the roots of the Mindanao problem. Otherwise, the talks will not solve the problem.

Unfortunate

It is most unfortunate that despite its authority – and with due respect to that authority – the Supreme Court struck down the MOA-AD without having thoroughly studied it. The many inconsistencies in its decision which it was unwilling to see and reconsider is tragic to the peace process. The same can be said of the MOA-AD opponents.

Injustice is among the roots of the Mindanao problem. Isn’t it rubbing salt to injury by unjustly striking down the MOA-AD in the name of constitutionality in blind disregard of the peace process and the intricacies of the more than th
ree years of negotiation that produced it?

How the MOA-AD will figure in the revived peace talks can only be conjectured. If the MILF is not posturing in its tough stance, the revived peace talks will stand or fall on this conjecture.

But it’s most certain that the MILF will not heed Malaysia’s call back to the negotiation table based on conjecture. Malaysia knows that. So, it is necessary for the GRP to first spell out its position – which it has not, unless the PDI in its latest report omitted it. The revival of the peace talks is really up to the GRP.

Crucial 

Going back to the negotiation table is just the beginning of the resumption of the still long journey to peace. This brings up the question: Should the talks resume this month, next month or after the next, can a peace agreement be signed by the time President Arroyo steps down on June 30, 2010?

Crucial to that question is: Can the talks resume?

PDI reported last February 12 that President Arroyo was expected to consult “religious, civic and other leaders” in North Cotabato about the GRP-MILF peace negotiation. The implications are not encouraging.

Why must it be she to do the “direct consultation”? Why not leave that to the GRP panel and its support staff? Have the GRP panel and support staff been fully constituted and organized?

North Cotabato’s Gov. Jesus Sacdalan said: “The President’s direct consultation with the people will give her the chance to get the real public sentiments that her government can incorporate in the negotiation.” But she’s going to meet only the “religious, civic and other leaders”. Why not call them all – all in Mindanao – to Malacañang for a one-time consultation?

This also implies an open-ended talking position of the government – the subjects and direction of the negotiation depending on what the “people” want, not necessarily on the imperatives relevant to the roots of the Mindanao problem. The risk: open-endedness can lead to endlessness. To quote a popular saying, “Abutin tayo ng siyam-siyam,” meaning, nothing will materialize.

MILF Unchanged

The same PDI report above cited the MILF as saying that the decision to resume the peace talks is no longer in their court. That was telling the Arroyo government, “Decide first on what you want to happen. On that our decision will depend.”

Since August 4, 2008 when the Court restrained the Arroyo government from signing the MOA-AD, the MILF has been consistently clear in its position: Restart the talks from where it stopped. Follow the same talking line from “Solve the Mindanao problem” – the one-sentence MILF proposition in 1997 – through the 3-aspect Tripoli Agreement of 2001 and on to the Comprehensive Compact. Had this line not been abandoned, it could have been possible to sign a final agreement 15 months after August 5, 2008.

This is the same position reiterated by the MILF (PDI, February 16) when it said it could not see how the talks could be resumed when it did not agree with the GRP on the use of the Constitution as the framework with the MOA-AD as the reference only.

Tentative

But since the same August 4, the Arroyo government has been tentative, if not erratic. Under its new peace paradigm, a new negotiating panel and an apparently tentative mode of negotiation, only by a miracle can there be a pact by 2010.

On launching its new peace policy, the Arroyo government emphasized the primacy of the DDR (disarmament, demobilization and reintegration). But now it appears to be backtracking. Avelino Razon Jr., the new presidential adviser on the peace process, is trying to soften the MILF’s strong objection to the new Arroyo peace talk framework.

He appears to see no difficulty in resolving the MILF objection (PDI, February 17, p. 2). “I believe there is no problem that cannot be threshed out,” he said, adding that the DDR is not longer a pre-condition but just one of the items in the peace talk agenda.

Will the grassroots consultations hinder or hasten the peace process? However, these should not be discouraged. The ceasefire should be made to hold, the sporadic hostilities stopped, and the freshly affected areas rehabilitated. Give back to the Muslim the relative peace and progress they had briefly enjoyed until that explosive August 2008.

Best Option

Instead of resuming the peace talks, why do the government and the MILF not formally agree to suspend it until after the 2010 election? Six years under the new government is more promising than 15 months under the present erratic Arroyo government. 

And more, why do the MILF and the MNLF not unite then ask the government in 2010 to submit the Mindanao question to the United Nations? The UN arbitrated the East Timor and the Bougainville Islands questions. In fact, the MOA-AD is partly modeled after the Bougainville Peace Agreement.

The Arroyo government should admit its failure to forge an agreement with the MILF. President Arroyo wasted her golden opportunity in the MOA-AD. Why did she not defend it in the Supreme Court and the media? It was defensible. Why did she not meet the protesting local government leaders to calm down their fears and disabuse their misunderstanding of the MOA-AD?

Hyping now the nation — “We are ready, it’s up to the MILF” — will not bring back the lost opportunity that could have gifted her with lasting peace in Mindanao as one of her legacies – unless by a miracle. 

("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 patpdiazgsc@yahoo.com.)