Options to break impasse on facilitator issue proposed

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/21 November) –  At least two options on how to break the impasse on the issue of  retaining or replacing Dato’ Othman, the  peace talks facilitator between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF),  have been suggested with a Malaysian professor saying the problem is “sad but not without solution” and a former Philippine government chief negotiator saying President Aquino should intervene.

The government peace panel wants Othman, who has been facilitating the talks under the Arroyo administration, replaced, even urging him to resign but the MILF peace panel wants him retained and its Central Committee had in fact passed a resolution urging Malaysia to retain him.

Government peace panel chair Marvic Leonen, however, does not consider this an impasse.

“First, we don’t consider it an impasse. The parties agree on Malaysia but disagree on who the facilitator should be. Obviously, in negotiations, both sides will have differences. Both sides are also cooperating on the implementation of past agreements. The GRP has used diplomatic  channels quietly the past few weeks to air out their concerns regarding Othman. We have also sent feelers to the MILF so that we can informally communicate our basis for our concerns. Apparently, this is the first time that this issue came up, and the absence of clear formal terms of reference for Othman does not help,” Leonen told MindaNews.

“We know that Malaysia will take our legitimate concerns seriously. Rather than speculate publicly on the possible permutations, we choose to be optimistic,” Leonen, also Dean of the University of the Philippines’ College of Law, said.

“Small matter”

The MILF in an article posted on its website has ruled out any meeting between its peace panel and the government’s “anywhere, inside or outside of the Philippines without the participation of the third country facilitator.”

Muhammad Ameen, chair of  the MILF Central Committee’secretariat, said there has been “persistent and continuing attempts by the GRP Peace Panel to reach out to their counterpart in the MILF and propose a meeting in the Philippines or even outside of it, but the MILF consistently but politely refused them, citing procedure and principle borne out of usage and in deference to the diplomatic stage status of the current talks.”

Ameen said that the government and MILF peace panels “are not the proper parties to discuss who and nominate the facilitator. Of course, they can raise concerns or reconsideration but in the end, it is primarily Malaysia’s call. Furthermore, the MILF views this issue of facilitator as a matter that can be easily addressed through proper and discreet representation, but the government has resorted to media negotiation, thereby stirring it to become an international issue.”

For MILF peace panel chair Mohagher Iqbal, the issue on facilitation is “a small matter.”

“GRP is dribbling. The issue is a small matter. After all, it’s KL’s call,” he said.

Sad but not without solution

Lawyer Jesus Dureza, who served as government peace panel chair from 2001 to 2003 and Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process from 2006 to 2008, told MindaNews the replacement of the Malaysian facilitator “should not be a precondition of resumption but can be an agenda item in the talks upon resumption.”

“The only way out of this impasse now that the GRP panel had made its position public and the Malaysians are not agreeing is for the President to step in and order GRP panel to go ahead and restart talks and shelve for the moment the panel’s position. I expect the MILF and the Malaysians will respond positively. President (Aquino)  will have to intervene,” he said.

For Malaysian professor Dr. Kamarulzaman “Zam” Askandar,  coordinator of the  Research and Education for Peace of the Universiti Sains Malaysia and the Regional Coordinator of the Southeast Asian Conflict Studies Network,  the problem on the facilitation issue is “sad but not without solution.”

Kamarulzaman said the facilitator is appointed by the Prime Minister of Malaysia.

He said Prime Minister Najib 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 panel unlike with the previous panels,” he said in an opinion piece contributed to MindaViews, the opinion section of MindaNews.

Doesn’t work that way in Malaysia

By going to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) and bypassing the Office of the Prime Minister-Research Department (OPM-RD), the  GRP is “actually making a mistake. It is understandable that the GRP sees this as a government to government communication and hopes that whatever is passed on will be conveyed to the PM’s office, but it does not necessarily 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 Office 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 a far off option.”

Kamarulzaman, however, says that the Prime Minister “knows that he has to do something quickly about this current impasse in the peace process as people will be faulting Malaysia with delaying the process. Malaysia still wants to be involved as the facilitator of the process. Talks about replacing Malaysia with Indonesia or other countries have deeply offended the Malaysian, and no way will they allow this to happen.”

Kamarulzaman added that even as the Prime Minister has reappointed Dato’ Othman as the facilitator, “the PM can still review his decision, given the current situation. The PM will definitely gather his advisors together to come up with a plan, if he has not done so already.”

He cited two options: for Malaysia to insist that the facilitator and his team stay as requested by the MILF or to replace Othman as facilitator and name “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.”

But the professor said the first option will “result in the continuation of this current stalemate, and Malaysia will definitely be blamed by the GRP and observers in the Philippines and elsewhere. Demands to replace Malaysia as the facilitator will surely increase. The situation will be made more complex because the MILF has already announced that they want Malaysia to continue as the facilitator. Introducing a new facilitating country will totally collapse the peace process with possible dire circumstances for all.”

Breaking the stalemate

The second option, he said, is not difficult to do. There are a number of qualified and prominent Malaysians who can fulfill this role, he said. It is preferable, he added, that “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.”

Kamarulzaman noted that it would be best to “appoint from within the OPM-RD office, preferably somebody who has an inside knowledge of the process

“He/She will still have the institutional memory provided by the facilitating team at the OPM-RD and should not have any problem of continuity,” he said.

He also suggested that a panel of Advisors be set up to assist and provide support to the new Facilitator and the facilitating team and that Othman be named to that advisory group.

“His knowledge and experience will be very much appreciated there. It will also give him an honourable exit while still playing a very important role in the process. I believe that he knows that the cause of peace is more important than one person and that his sacrifices will be remembered by all,” Kamarulzaman added.

He said the second option “will definitely break the current stalemate with the GRP and prevent Malaysia from being accused as a spoiler in the peace process. It can also provide an added incentive to move the process faster.”

“Caution has to be taken though to ensure that there is no further delaying tactic on either sides, and that the building blocks remain intact. The process has taken a long time to reach this stage and even if the structure of the process including the Facilitator has changed, previous achievements should still be honoured and used as stepping stones to move forward,” Kamarulzaman said.  (Carolyn O. Arguillas/MindaNews)