COMMENT: Racing Against Time (Sixth of a Series) by Patricio P. Diaz

GENERAL SANTOS CITY (November 26) — Prof. Kamarulzaman Askandar of Universitii Sains Malaysia, writing in MindaNews of November 21 [Transforming the Facilitation in the Mindanao Peace Process], has an “uncomfortable” revelation. Engaged in research and conflict studies in Southeast Asia, his report — evidently of unquestionable reliability — should be taken seriously; he has visited Mindanao several times and has written extensively on the GRP-MILF peace process.

The revelation:

Prof. Kamarulzaman stated the present issue, posed substantive questions on it, and gave a common sense, as well as textbook, perception of third-party facilitation. Alluding to how Othman could have probably created “discomfort” on the GRP peace negotiators, he elucidated the import of “impartiality”:

… Impartiality is important too [as a requisite of facilitation and for a facilitator], but if by being impartial means that a just and fair solution is not achieved, and that the more dominant party in an asymmetric conflict gets to dictate the process to its advantage, or that it gets to decide if and when it wants to be cooperative or not, or even to become a spoiler itself, then impartiality of the third party does not mean anything.

Kamarulzaman is not talking in a vacuum. He must have specific instances in mind that occurred during the many talk impasses which only the GRP and MILF negotiators can authentically reveal as these could have happened in closed door or executive meetings.

Othman has the complete trust of the Prime Minister. After his retirement as director-general of the OPM-RD, he remained Facilitator in his official position as Adviser to the Prime Minister.  Only the Prime Minister can remove him from being Facilitator.

The agreements on the first two aspects of the Tripoli Agreement on Peace “were easily achieved”.  The negotiation on the third aspect, the ancestral domain, “was much more difficult”; yet, to Othman and his Malaysian team [MTG], “it was still a success because they managed to overcome all hurdles and was able to convince the parties to initial the MOA-AD agreement”.  [The “convincing” must have caused “discomfort”. — ppd]

The eventual declaration of MOA-AD as “unconstitutional and illegal” by the Philippine Supreme Court was met with utter disappointment and disillusionment:

The facilitation team … felt betrayed by the GRP and especially the GMA administration for being left with the task of picking up the pieces of this failed effort.  They were asking for support from this administration for the process and they felt that this was not forthcoming [This implies Malaysia had asked the Arroyo government to save the MOA-AD. – ppd]….

Not the facilitation team only had that feeling:

…Many people in Malaysia also questioned the sincerity of the GRP and especially the President herself for allowing the process to collapse.  They were bitterly disappointed that after spending so much energy, time, and money doing the facilitation and supporting monitoring work on the ground, their own sincerity, capability, commitment and impartiality are being questioned by the Philippine public.” [This is the national feeling of the Malaysians — government and people. -ppd]

The calls “by some quarters” [in the Philippines (alluding to the MOA-AD opponents)] to replace Malaysia “with another country” offended the Malaysians with the feeling of being unwanted. But the Malaysian government – believing it “still has a responsibility as a neighboring country to ensure that peace and justice prevail in Mindanao” – muted the urge to give up the facilitation. [This sounds like a “we are more concerned than thou” rebuke. – ppd]

On the “ill-fated” MOA-AD, “… the facilitation team sincerely believed that peace in Mindanao could have been achieved if that document was officially signed in 2008. It would have provided the best stepping stone for the next rounds of talks.” [Did Othman rub this in to earn the ire of GRP negotiators and the perception of impartiality? – ppd]

Referring to the 1996 GRP-MNLF Final Peace Agreement, the “Facilitator and his team” did not want to repeat a “process in which an agreement was signed and implemented but the problem has not been resolved” since the “MILF will not accept such an agreement and are willing to continue their struggle to get justice, even to go to war”. [This is a pro-MILF sentiment. – ppd]

By Kamarulzaman’ comment, it is probable that because of this, Othaman could have wounded the sensitivity of the GRP peace negotiators:

The Facilitator and his team wanted to prevent this [the eventuality of the MILF going to war] from happening at all cost.  If it means that they have to be a bit undiplomatic in their ways or vigilant in regards to the moves and maneuvers of the parties especially the more dominant party in this asymmetric conflict, so be it.  The goal is, to repeat, to get a just and fair solution within the boundaries and scope of the process. Not to please the parties….

This implies bluntness bordering reproach to bring back the GRP and MILF panels to the negotiation table during many of the impasses. Of the “discomfort” this could have likely caused, Kamarulzaman rationalizes thus:

… The solution itself should please the parties as it brings promises of peace for all.  To the minds of the Facilitator and his team, not getting a just and fair solution to the Bangsamoro problem would surely result in the continuation of the conflict and even war, bring suffering to all.  I believe that the Facilitator is firm in his resolve not to allow this to happen and in so doing has opened up opportunities for his detractors in the GRP side to accuse him of being impartial and to have him removed. [The “discomfort” that has triggered the facilitation issue bears out this perception. – ppd]

On Othman as the center of the present facilitation issue:

… The PM and all the people I’ve talked to believe that Dato Othman is still the best person to lead the facilitation. He has the experience, the knowledge and the team to move forward the process.  His style and personality might not be acceptable to the GRP but at the end of the day how would we know what kind of personality might we get from the next Facilitator.  It is also known that he has no chemistry with the current [GRP] panel unlike with the previous panels. [The past GRP panels, despite their “discomfort”, tolerated Othman’s “we are more concerned than thou” style and personality; but the present panel will not. – ppd]

On the “through the proper channels” approach of GRP to resolve the issue:

GRP made a big mistake by going to the MOFA as “government to government communication … does not easily work that way in Malaysia.  Worse, it can be seen as an insult to the facilitating office at the RD and to the PM’s itself. The intention of persuading the MOFA to take up the facilitating role will also not be successful as the knowledge and capacity for facilitation work in the Mindanao peace process is in the OPM-RD.  The trust of the PM is in the OPM-RD. MOFA is far off option”. [The same opinion was expressed by Camilo “Bong” Montesa, past OPAPP assistant secretary and head of the GRP Secretariat. — ppd]

Malaysia still wants to facilitate the GRP-MILF peace process, does not want to get the blame for delaying it and, obviously out of national pride, will not let Indonesia or other countries replace it. To resolve the issue quickly, two options stand out:

First, retain Othman; he wants to stay on. But despite the crucial advantages, retaining Othman (1) will prolong the current stalemate (2) for which Malaysia will be blamed; (3) demands to replace Malaysia as third-party facilitator “will surely increase”. These implications will create a more complex situation since the MILF wants Malaysia retained and “introducing a new facilitating country will surely collapse (sic) the peace process with possible dire consequences for all”.

Second, replace Othman with “a person who is acceptable to both sides and who has the knowledge, capacity, and diplomatic skills to lead the process to a just and fair solution”, most preferably one “from within the OPM-RD”. Othman will still be actively involved as the leading member of a panel of advisers to assist the new facilitator. This “option will definitely break the current stalemate with GRP and prevent Malaysia from being accused as a spoiler in the peace process”.

(Next: Where To?)
[“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]]