MILF wants Malaysia to retain facilitator; GRP says find someone "acceptable to both"

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/16 November) – The Moro Islamic Liberation Front’s (MILF) Central Committee has formally requested Malaysian Prime Minister Najib to retain Datuk Othman bin Razak as facilitator of the peace talks even as the Philippine government had earlier requested that a new facilitator  “acceptable to both sides” be named.

Malaysia has been facilitating the GRP-MILF talks since 2001 when Vice Presaident Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo assumed the Presidency from the ousted leader, Joseph Estrada.

According to the MILF website, luwaran.com, the MILF adopted the resolution to formally request Othman’s retention during a special meeting of its Central Committee on November 13 at the MILF peace panel’s office in Darapanan, Sultan Kudarat, Maguindanao. It said the retention of Othman would “ensure continuity and preservation of the gains of the peace process.”

It also appealed to Malaysia “to finally settle this issue of facilitator so as not to delay further the early resumption of the GRP-MILF Peace Talks.”

MILF peace panel chair Mohagher Iqbal told MindaNews the “only way” forward is “to meet.”

“For the moment, the rule, ‘as is, where is’ must apply,” he said, while Datu Michael Mastura, MILF senior peace panel member, said the way forward is “simply to meet. No ifs or buts.”

Government peace panel chair Marvic Leonen, also Dean of the University of the Philippines College of Law, said they respect the right of the MILF Central Committee to make public their position on “the former facilitator assigned by Malaysia during the past administration” but government maintains that it has “solid basis to conclude that their (GRP) panel will have difficulties working with the former facilitator assigned by Malaysia.”

“All these have been communicated through the proper diplomatic channels. We trust that Malaysia will seriously take that into consideration. We are certain that there will be many individuals who can effectively serve as facilitator and who will be acceptable to both sides. Institutional memory is resident in the GRP and the MILF. We also trust that all concerned agree that the agenda for peace should be driven by both parties,” Leonen added.

‘Faciliator should resign’

For Father Eliseo Mercado, Jr., former Notre Dame University president who headed the independent fact-finding group of the GRP-MILF peace talks under the Estrada administration and who is now executive director of the the Cotabato City-based Institute of Autonomy and Governance, Othman should resign.

“The  honorable way is for Mr. Othman, in the name of peace, to resign as the facilitator and pave the way for Malaysia’s Foreign Ministry to act as facilitator in the GRP and the MILF Peace Talks,” Mercado wrote in his column for gmanews.tv.

He said Othman, a special adviser to the Malaysian Prime Minister’s Office, “actually delays the resumption of the peace talks, because of his perceived partisanship. ”

He stressed that the role of facilitator in any talks is “crucial in any peace talks” and that the facilitator”must not only be actually independent and non-partisan, but also perceived as independent and non-partisan. ”

“Sad to say, Mr. Othman’s role in the peace talks has always been a contested issue, to say the least, for the Republic of the Philippines. The GRP has always objected to Mr. Othman’s partisanship in the facilitation of peace talks,” he said.

He said the former government peace panel chair, Ambassador  Rafael Seguis had objected to Othman’s facilitation but Malaysia had “turned deaf ears to the GRP pleading.”

“I personally believe that no one is indispensable to the peace talks between the GRP and the MILF. There is no sacred cow in the talks. And it leaves a bad taste in the mouth when the sacred cow is the person of the facilitator.  Until the sacred cow continues to insist that he facilitate the talks, the prospect of any resumption looks bleak. It is really tragic when the facilitator becomes the obstacle to the peace talks. The Spanish word is Cuidate!” he wrote.

“Be patient”

In his State of the Nation Address on July 26, President Benigno Simeon Aquino said he hoped the talks could start “after Ramadan.” Ramadan ended on September 9.

On September 21, Malaysian Ambassador to the Philippines Dato’ Seri Dr. Ibrahim Saad told reporters after the ARMM Peace Summit in Cotabato City that Malaysia wants the conflict between the Philippine government and the MILF “settled as soon as possible.”

Like President Aquino, the Malaysian Prime Minister also hopes a peace pact could be forged while they are still the leaders, he said.

Jesus Dureza, former Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (2005 to 2008) who served as the first chair (2001 to 2003) of the government peace panel under the Arroyo administration and who now heads Advocacy MindaNOW Foundation, wrote, “let’s all  be patient.”

“The onset of a new group of players, especially on the government side is a big factor. A new panel will have to establish its footing not only with the issues involved. It has to set up its own network that will link up with the stakeholders  — and this is not a simple task knowing the diversity of the different sectors of Mindanao, many of them demanding that their voices be heard too,” he said.

On the issue of facilitation, he wrote that the “more complicated issue of facilitation” by Malaysia “must be given focus and resolved.”

“Knowing what happened in the past, I am sure Malaysia will not yet merrily roll its sleeves and give it another try unless its doubts are cleared in the highest levels. Meaning, Pres. Noynoy and Prime Minster Najib must first meet and make clear understanding on how to proceed and what to expect as an end game. Let’s not discount the fact that in the Malaysian bureaucracy, there are already ‘doubters’ on whether it is for the best interest of Malaysia to continue  – at great financial and moral cost –  assisting  the Philippine peace process.  I got reliable word that Malaysian facilitator Datu Othman bin Razak may be replaced so that makes the peace talks more difficult to re-start.”

Dureza’s office sent his piece Monday afternoon, before the news spread around about the MILF’s official request for Malaysia to retain Othman.

“Malaysia makes that decision. GRP cannot and should not insist,” he told MindaNews Tuesday.

“Let’s give that to the Malaysians. Unless GRP wants to change Malaysians. Which is not the way forward. It was a mistake early on that GRP was officially signaling it wants to change Malaysia. That was a blunder. We have gone this far already. Only the last strand is left on ancestral domain, he added.

“Replacing Othman by their (Malaysia’s call) is best as it also coincides with what GRP wants but we cannot insist. Whatever Malaysia decides, let’s concur. Remember, although they have other collateral interests and concerns, they are helping.” (Carolyn O. Arguillas/MindaNews)

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