GENERAL SANTOS CITY (MindaNews/3 Aug) – In truth, what “modest breakthrough” was achieved by the Government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in their latest (29th) Exploratory Talks last July 16 to 18? The question still nags. We are still in the dark. Its repeated play up in media without concrete substantiation has shed no lights.
Interestingly, this is the third “breakthrough”. The first was the August 5, 2011 meeting of President Benigno Simeon C. Aquino III and MILF Chairman Murad Ibrahim in Tokyo; and the second, the adoption of the “GPH-MILF Decision Points on Principle” during the 27th Exploratory Talks last April.
The pattern is evident: Breakthroughs are followed by roadblocks.
The Aquino-Murad meeting was a historic breakthrough. The President, like his mother President Corazon C. Aquino, who met then Moro National Liberation Front Chairman Nur Misuari in Sulu in September 1986, set aside protocol to win the trust of the MILF. But contrary to expectations, a week after that meeting, the MILF rejected the “GPH ‘3 for 1’ Formula” that the government panel proposed for a political settlement.
The roadblock was removed nine months after with the signing of the “Decision Points on Principle” last April 24; yet, again, the 28th Exploratory Talks in the next month did not go well – the Parties, for the first time, did not issue a Joint Statement. Instead of conducting the next talks in June, the Malaysian facilitator shuttled between Manila and the MILF main camp in Darapanan, Sultan Kudarat, Maguindanao to smoothen kinks.
The 29th exploratory talks yielded just that “modest breakthrough” shrouded in secrecy confounded by riddles — “the still many issues to be resolved” and “the devils are in the details… waiting in ambush”.
On July 18, MindaNews published the “breakthrough”; on July 19, the OPAPP Website and Luwaran simultaneously followed up. The Opening Statement of Government Panel Chair Marvic Leonen and the Joint Statement that OPAPP posted in its website on July 17 and 18 respectively gave no clues of what the “breakthrough” really is and what the “riddles” are.
Following is the substantial part of Leonen’s “Opening Statement” — the paragraphs numbered for easy reference of our gist-summaries to help see the substance.
 This administration is prepared to fully invest in a harmonious working relationship between the National Government and the new autonomous political entity to enable an autonomy that is truly viable, workable and meaningful.
 The working relationship will be founded on trust and a general plan: a general plan where there is openness to adjustments should real challenges present themselves in the implementation, and the flexibility to assess violations of commitments in its context.
 The working relationship should make it truly possible for meaningful autonomy to exist.
 For instance, never again would it be possible for rights or powers granted under any law or norm be rendered inutile without the corresponding increase in the ability of the autonomous government to mobilize and/or capacitate leaders who will not only have the competence to govern but who will also approach leadership as positions of trust and stewardship.
 Never again, would the initial stages of establishing that autonomous political entity be starved with the lack of funds; there will still be investments or national fund transfers from the national government. Eventually, there will be the ability of the NPE to generate its own sources of revenues and this will be clearly seen.
 We are at the door of an agreement. Let us persevere. Now is indeed the time for peace.
Leonen only made general descriptive, evaluative and prognostic comments on the “GPH-MILF Decision Points in Principle”. In Paragraph 1 is a commitment; in 2, the definition of would-be relationship; in 3, an assurance of a working relationship toward meaningful autonomy; in 4, an example to guarantee against failure; in 5, a guarantee of funds for the new autonomy to take off; and in 6, the clincher, the final appeal.
What do the Parties say in the Joint Statement? Five essential points as we have indicated with ordinal numbers.
“The 29th round of Exploratory Talks between the Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GPH) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF)[1st] successfully ended today in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia [2nd] with both sides expressing confidence in wrapping up discussions [3rd] on mechanisms towards the realization of a new political entity [4th] that would replace the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) [5th] as contained in the April 2012 GPH-MILF Decision Points on Principles.”
Those who want to know the breakthrough, the issues still to be resolved and the devils in the details waiting for ambush – in order to understand why we are being exhorted to persevere when we are already at the door of an agreement in time of peace – are, in effect, being told: “Believe us, trust us, we are telling you the truth.” Don’t look up the sky for the truth; they are in the “Decision Points on Principle”.
Iqbal’s Opening Statement
MILF Panel Chair Mohagher Iqbal’s “Opening Statement” was posted in Luwaran on July 27. After the customary amenities follows the substantive part. Then it appeals for “the need to resolve the Moro Question and the armed conflict in Mindanao now and not later” – a lengthy one quoting the radical proposals of the President’s father, then Sen. Benigno S. Aquino Jr., in his speech at King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia on May 12, 1981.
The substantive points:
First, the urgency and the risk: “Today, we are about to venture into the crux of this current negotiation. If we do not summon all the remaining powers within us and face the future with resolve and sincerity, we might be the victim of the quicksand of uncertainty.”
Second, the way: “But there is a way to do this more easily. We can ease this burden by doing a little of statesmanship to make this tough job easier.”
Third, the way already agreed: “Here’s how. It is a fact that after almost two years into the Aquino administration we have already agreed to establish a real self-governing new entity in place of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) within the larger Philippine state. This we describe it in the MILF circle as a ‘state-substate asymmetrical arrangement’ which in reality is the essence of the federal system of government.”
Fourth, what the federal system is: “A federal system of government is one that divides the powers of government between the central government and state or local governments. Each level of government has competence in some areas and shares powers in other areas.”
Fifth, how to hasten the negotiation: “For this reason, we can fast track the discussion of power-sharing and wealth-sharing by examining all models of federalism and get inspiration there from.”
Sixth, what is demanded of government: “The government must be magnanimous to yield those powers that are freely conceded to the state government in these models. Through this we can save goodwill and time, which we direly need in confronting other hitches in our peace negotiation.”
Iqbal’s substantive points suggest the “issues still to be resolved” and “the devils in the details … waiting in ambush”. The Parties must be in full agreement in the first and second points which are what the “Decision Points” mean in principle; but they are still at odds in the four other points which refer to details.
The “Joint Statement” states that discussions – echoed and reechoed in news reports – were “on mechanisms towards the realization of a new political entity”. Presumably, these must have centered on Key Points 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 of the “Decision Points”.
The Parties have agreed to create a new political entity to change the “unacceptable status quo” (Key Point 2). To Government, this means the reform of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao within the unitary framework of the national government as proposed in the “GRP ‘3 for 1’ Formula”. To MILF – Iqbal’s third substantive point – this means the creation of a federal state to break from the unitary system. Both Parties must have stuck firmly to their positions; hence, one issue still to be resolved.
However, MILF has the edge. In Key Point 4, the Parties have agreed on “a ministerial form of government” for the new autonomous political entity. This form is that of the parliamentary system common to the federal governments like that of Malaysia. In their discussions, Government must have been on the spot; hence, another issue to resolve.
Discussions in transitional mechanisms (Key Point 5) and power-sharing (Key Point 6) must consistently adhere to agreements in Key Points 2 and 4 with reference to Key Point 3. If the Parties are still at odds in the details of Key Points 2 and 4, no issues in Key Points 5 and 6 can be resolved; hence, the “issues still to be resolved”.
We see the MILF position in Iqbal’s Sixth Substantive Point as a daunting roadblock. The demand of “magnanimity” assumes Government’s concession to the Fourth and Fifth Substantive Points. That is demanding of Government to grant fully the “state-substate asymmetrical arrangement”. Will the Aquino Government oblige?
To Fast Track
Unless shown the contrary, we understand that the Parties have successfully kept committed to the “Principles” agreed in the “Decision Points”. To that extent the 29th Exploratory Talks “successfully ended”.
We understand, too, that they claim to have consensus on several points; but there are “still many issues to be resolved” and “devils in details waiting in ambush”. As the Malaysian facilitator sees it, “there are a lot to be done”. Despite these, Government is in “guarded optimism”; MILF agrees the Parties “have achieved something”. On this note, they will continue discussions during the 30th exploratory talks this month.
But where is the guarantee that a peace agreement will be signed soon? The odds are against MILF. Without the agreement, Government will continue its reform program for ARMM. Traditional and other non-MILF Moro leaders will cooperate with Manila. In the long run, the MILF will be rendered irrelevant.
The MILF has already abandoned its demand for independence; last month, MILF Chair Murad Ibrahim said the transition period of the Moro autonomous government will be shortened to three years from six. What more should they do to fast track the peace agreement? Simple: Abandon their “state-substate asymmetrical arrangement or federal state”, accept the interpretation of the “Decision Points on Principle” according to the “GPH ‘3 for 1’ Formula” and repose complete faith and trust in the Aquino government.
Will MILF oblige? If it does, a peace agreement will be signed soon after this month’s 30th Exploratory Talks.
(“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 firstname.lastname@example.org.)