(I. From Joint Statements)
GENERAL SANTOS CITY, March 28, 2012 – Will the Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GPH nee GRP) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) be able to sign a peace agreement by the end of this month or by the end of 2012? There is no sign.
Will there be a signing before the Aquino administration ends on June 30, 2016? Let’s look for signs from the official statements on the recurring exploratory talks and from various reports.
Normally, the joint statements after the formal exploratory talks would indicate the state and progress of the peace negotiation. The joint statements show how the parties explore common grounds to resolve issues in order to save the peace process from collapse – of course, with the intervention of Malaysia, the third-country facilitator.
The joint statement for the 26th exploratory talks that ended on March 21, 2012 shows what was taken up during the three-day negotiation in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, March 19-21: “The Parties continued their discussions on substantive issues, including power sharing on governance and wealth sharing.” This was the gist of what they discussed.
The progress can be gauged by tracing back the negotiations from the 23rd round of talks on December 5 to 7, 2011. This round ended “…with both Parties reaffirming their commitment to move the peace process forward”. During the three days, “The Parties continued their discussions on the substantive points for purposes of crafting a framework agreement.”
It should be noted that there was a three-month gap between the 22nd round on August 22 to 24, 2011 and the 23rd round – the period of impasse when MILF rejected the “3 for 1 Proposal” of Government. In the 23rd round, the parties agreed re-craft or revise their “framework agreement”.
In the 24th round, January 9 to 11, “The Parties” discussed “substantive issues” among which were  “the concept of governance” and  “the listing of reserved powers of the National Government, as contained in their respective drafts. Both Parties  clarified their positions,  tentatively identified areas of common ground and  agreed to consult with their principals on outstanding issues.  They also considered drafting road maps towards a resolution of the Bangsamoro question.”
The six substantive points of agreements covered in the 24th round were encouraging. Of course, they had to be weighed against the related differences which, in the 25th round, the parties acknowledged.
The 25th round, February 13 to 15, ended “… with both sides expressing satisfaction on the progress of their discussions, and recognizing the many challenges that have yet to be resolved in order to find a political solution to the Bangsamoro Question and the armed conflict in Mindanao”.
What particular challenges stood out? “The Parties acknowledge the need to explore creative approaches that will address the political, legal and other dimensions of the problems.” Impliedly, the parties were encountering contentious political and legal differences in their respective positions.
The rounds of exploratory talks in last four months — December, January, February and March – show that Government and MILF have been stuck in “substantive issues” but have expressed their determination to pull through. How seriously stuck are the parties? The opening statements of the chief negotiators and various media reports will tell.
In their opening statements, the chief negotiators assess the progress of the peace process, state or restate their positions on the substantive issues, warn in the most diplomatic way the dire consequences of failure to resolve contentious issues and suggest options as well as compromises. They imply the extent and seriousness of their differences.
What the parties refrain from revealing in their joint and opening statements they may be constrained to reveal to media. The people must be informed. One party cannot bear to let the people know the other party’s side of the coin only. Media have a way of telling the untold including the “off-the-press” statements.
(Next: Opening Statements)