Gov't seeks exploratory talks with MILF on or before December 14

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/05 December) –   The chair of the government peace panel in the negotiations with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) has invited the chair of the MILF peace panel through Kuala Lumpur, for exploratory talks this week or next week “to address urgent concerns.”

Government peace panel chair Marvic Leonen, also Dean of the University of the Philippines’ College of Law, told MindaNews in a telephone interview Sunday afternoon that he personally handed over his letter for Iqbal to Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister for Foreign Affairs Richard Riot in Kuala Lumpur on December 2.

Leonen said he went to Kuala Lumpur to handcarry a letter from President Benigno Simeon Aquino III to Prime Minister Najib, a copy of the note verbale of the Department of Foreign Affairs requesting Malaysia to extend the mandate of its contingent in the International Monitoring Team (IMT) to three more months and his own letter to Iqbal.

Leonen suggested in his letter December 6, 7, 8, 13 and 14 as possible dates for the exploratory talks. Though he did not specify in his letter that the venue be Kuala Lumpur, Leonen told MindaNews he is open to meeting with Iqbal in KL.

Communication between the panels is coursed through the country-facilitator, Malaysia.

Iqbal said he has not received Leonen’s letter. “I will wait,” he told MindaNews in a text message Sunday.

Leonen said among the “urgent concerns” that need to be addressed by the two chairs are the facilitation issue and security guarantees, including the case of Engr. Eduard Guerra (passport name Abraham Yap Alonto) who was arrested on September 22 at the Davao International Airport en route to Geneva, Switzerland, to attend a meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Council. The MILF Central Committee resolution on October 11, 2010 protested the arrest of Guerra, urged the dropping of charges against him and asked that he be released without delay.

The resolution also said Guerra, a member of the MILF Central Committee, is covered by the safety and security guarantees provided to MILF members who are directly and principally involved in the peace process.

Excellent development

The news about the invitation for exploratory talks was welcomed by civil society.

Guiamel Alim, a member of the Council of Elders of the Consortium of Bangsamoro Civil Society told MindaNews “we must encourage the panels to start the exploratory talks ASAP to ease tensions.”

Lawyer Mary Ann Arnado, secretary-general of the Mindanao Peoples Caucus, said “peace advocates should bridge the parties to ensure they get to meet and talk before the Christmas and New Year. Exploratory meeting will be a good start if only to impress upon the IDPs (internally displaced persons) and civilians in the conflict-affected areas that the process is moving and something is being done at the highest level to address their situation. If not immediately after Ramadan, at least before Christmas. That is the best gift we Christians can give to the Moros. The gift of peace, goodwill and love.”

Lawyer Zainudin Malang, executive director of the Mindanao Human Rights Action Center (MinHRAC), said “both the continued stay of the International Monitoring Team as well as the resumption of the talks will be welcomed by the millions living in the conflict-affected areas, the vast majority of whom belong to the Moro minority. Any further delay will undermine the credibility and legitimacy of the GRP-MILF peace process to these people. The talks will face a crisis of confidence.”

Amina Rasul, convenor of the Philippine Council for Islam and Democracy said “we can only hope for the best start. At this point, it would seem that the official process is in play. Thus, the MILF will respond only when they have received the letter. However, I understand that both sides do want the talks to begin. That’s good news. Apart from hoping and praying for the best, what else can we in civil society do?”

Gus Miclat, executive director of the Initiatives for International Dialogue, said civil society “should publicly welcome and encourage any small step towards this direction and offer its services to pursue the same.”

“This is excellent development,” said Irene Santiago, chair of the Mindanao Commission on Women and a member of the government peace panel negotiating with the MILF from 2001 to 2004.

“Civil society has been behind efforts to bring the parties back to the table without preconditions. We will continue to be engaged in the peace process because we believe that we are a party to the negotiations as well. Though the leaders sit at the table, it takes the effort of thousands of people at all levels to help bring peace about,” she said.

Acceptance letter

Leonen told MindaNews the letters he brought to KL “were received by the deputy minister for foreing affairs Richard Riot. He in turn will turn it over ot the Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Prime Minister.”

Leonen explained the letter of President Aquino “was in response to the written acceptance by Prime Minister Najib to continue the facilitation of the talks between the GPH (Government of the Philippines) and the MILF.”

“This formal acceptance was received late November,” he said.  Malaysia had earlier accepted the offer of facilitation verbally. The November letter was the written acceptance.

Leonen added that in his letter, President Aquino “acknowledged the importance of going into the substantive phase of the talks. At the same time, he expressed confidence that Malaysia will act on the concerns communicated by the government regarding the facilitation.”

The Philippine government has asked that the facilitator, Datuk Othman bin Abd’ Razak, be changed while the MILF Central Committee passed a resolution asking Malaysia to retain Othman.

“We are confident that Malaysia is ready to address our concerns relating to the facilitation as soon as possible. Our letter shows that we are eager to restart the talks as soon as possible.” Leonen said. (Carolyn O. Arguillas/MindaNews)

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