COMMENT: Racing against Time (Fourth of a Series) by Patricio P. Diaz

GENERAL SANTOS CITY (November 24) — That from the start Malaysian officials, from the prime minister down to the designated facilitator, exhorted the MILF not to negotiate for independence was a pitch for the Philippines, not the MILF. Since Santos’ paper covered only the period until 2003 — the year Datok Othman became director-general of OPM-RD of Malaysia and, consequently, the GRP-MILF peace talk facilitator – it does not tell what happened beyond that year.

Out in the Open

If Malaysia and Datok Othman became partial against GRP after 2003, the Aquino peace team should bring it out in the open since it has made an issue of that on the basis of the experiences of past GRP peace panels and secretariats. Even if its complaints have been communicated to Malaysia through “proper channels”, these have already been stripped of their cloak of diplomatic secrecy.

When Leonen and Ferrer invoked wisdom to assess the current facilitation process and the facilitator “based on the experience of the past panels and secretariats”, did they mean all GRP peace panels and secretariats under all past chairmen – Secretaries Jesus Dureza, Eduardo Ermita, Silvestre Afable, Rodolfo Garcia and Rafael Seguis?

How was Malaysia partial? Out in the open, to paraphrase the poet Robert Browning, “let’s count the events”, take a look and see:

Malaysia facilitated in Kuala Lumpur the negotiation of the “Agreement on the General Framework for the Resumption of the [GRP-MILF] Peace Talks”. Was that partial to the MILF? The agreement was negotiated and signed by the GRP and MNLF with Malaysia only witnessing, not presiding.

GRP and MILF negotiated and signed in Tripoli, Libya the June 22, 2001 “GRP-MILF Agreement of Peace” – the three-aspect framework of negotiation toward a political settlement of the Bangsamoro Problem. Was that partial to the MILF? Malaysia had no hand in that even if, later, it facilitated all the negotiations to flesh out the framework.

After President Arroyo suspended the peace talks with both the MILF and the NDF (National Democratic Front or the communist rebels) in March 2002, she sent National Security Adviser Norberto Gonzales to negotiate the first two aspects of the Tripoli Agreement of Peace – bypassing the Dureza Peace Panel. Gonzales with Ermita signed the agreements on the two aspects on May 6 and 7, 2002. Were the two agreements partial to the MILF at the behest of Malaysia?

In the almost four-year negotiation of the MOA-AD, Malaysia mediated to bring back the panels to the negotiation table during each of the more than fifteen talk impasses and suspensions and to reconcile contentious differences. How was Malaysia partial to the MILF in all these sensitive tasks demanding from Datok Othman tact and patience?

In one of the last impasses on the MOA-AD negotiation in January 2009, Othman had to do shuttle diplomacy between Manila and Darapanan (in Sultan Kudarat, Maguindanao) to reconcile hard positions. One of these was the MILF demand for an 80-20 sharing of revenues from strategic minerals in its favor; GRP was willing to give only 70-30.

While the MTG (Malaysian Technical Group) favored GRP, Othman reconciled the two positions: 75-25. Was that partiality to the MILF? Both panels went on to negotiate on the recommended 75-25 and ultimately adopted it.

The MILF panel walked out of the session on July 26, 2008 to protest the revision by GRP of the agreed text in the resolution of three issues already closed but re-opened on GRP’s insistence. On the following day, President Arroyo sent back the GRP panel chair, her peace adviser and her security adviser to confer with Othman on how to have the MOA-AD initialed in time for her July 28 State of the Nation Address. The agreed text must have been restored on Arroyo’s instruction.

By midnight of July 27, the GRP and MILF panel chairs had initialed the MOA-AD through Othman’s mediation. That elated President Arroyo. Was that partiality to the MILF?

These were among the important events related to the negotiation leading to the initialing of the MOA-AD. Following the order of the Supreme Court restraining the Philippine Government from signing the MOA-AD on August 5, talks were suspended until July 29, 2009. From then on the new GRP peace panel under Seguis negotiated with the MILF until June 2, 2010. Was the Seguis Panel subjected to Othman’s impartiality?

If Othman, in some subtle ways, had been partial to the MILF, the burden to show so is on the GRP. It would be most enlightening to hear directly from the different Arroyo GRP peace panel and secretariat chairs and other members of the peace team including now OPAPP Secretary Teresita Quintos-Deles, who had occupied the same position under Arroyo.

On his part, Dureza said the difficulties were not just in negotiating with the MILF but sometimes much more in bearing with the government’s negotiation dynamics; he did not mention any hint of pressure or any form of partiality from Malaysia or Othman (MindaNews, November 18, 2010).

Seguis should give some details on what Fr. Eliseo “Jun” Mercado, OMI revealed in his latest GMANews.TV article: “Amb. Rafael Seguis had categorically filed an objection on the facilitation of Mr. Othman.  However, the Malaysian Government has deaf ears on the GRP pleadings.” He said: “Mr. Othman’s role in the peace talks has always been a contested issue” and “GRP has always objected to Mr. Othman’s partisanship in the facilitation of peace talks”.

Perceived Partiality?

But the article was not categorical about Othman’s being partisan – the word as used in the title being enclosed in parentheses, thus ‘Partisan’. However, Mercado emphasized: as facilitator, Othman is not what a facilitator is — must “NOT ONLY be actually independent and non-partisan … but must also be PERCEIVED as independent and non-partisan”.

This drew calls for specific instances of partisanship from Muslims. Mercado, after describing what the facilitator normally does, said: “It seems this is NOT the case with the person of Mr. Othman bin abd Razak”; but in blaming him: “The facilitator Othman actually delays the resumption of the peace talks, because of his perceived partisanship”, Mercado, after all, stated what they thought the charge of partisanship against Othman was – just that, “perceived”. (Emphasis mine)

To the Moros and the MILF, with the MOA-AD ever fresh in their memory, “perceived partisanship” evokes the nemesis to their aspiration – biased perception. Perception-driven fear of dismemberment of the country scuttled the MOA-AD sinking with it the state-sub-state political settlement they had forged with Arroyo government. In the heat of the MOA-AD controversy, critics raised their suspicion of a trade off in Malaysia’s participation as third-party facilitator – the Philippine Sabah claim for goodwill.

Now, the perceived partisanship of Othman, ergo of Malaysia! Unless the experiences of past panels and secretariats are substantiated in the open, the Malaysian partiality or that of the designated facilitator alluded to would, in reality, remain just perceptions. Could this be the fact explaining why the complaints lodged then by Seguis and now by Leonen have remained in “pending status”? (Next: Two Views of the Issue)

[“Comment” is Mr. Patricio P. Diaz’ column for MindaViews, the opinion section of MindaNews. Mr. Diaz is the recipient of a “Lifetime Achievement Award” from the Titus Brandsma for his “commitment to education and public information to Mindanawons as Journalist, Educator and Peace Advocate.” You may e-mail your comments to [email protected]]