MILF: IMT can stay 'til Feb. 28; Peace groups say panels should meet now

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/05 December) –  The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) has announced it will “interpose no objection” to the Philippine government’s request for a three-month extension of the tour of duty of the Malaysian-led International Monitoring Team (IMT) but says it should not be extension but a “correct reckoning” of the IMT’s one-year mandate.

This as representatives of civil society called on both panels to talk to each other “immediately, unconditionally.”

The Philippine government is reckoning the IMT’s mandate from December 9, 2009 when the two parties signed the agreement to renew the Terms of Reference of the IMT. On December 1, the Department of Foreign Affairs issued notes verbales to the embassies of the IMT member-countries —  Malaysia, Brunei, Libya and Japan – requesting for a three-month extension of the the IMT’s stay, or until March 9.

The MILF, on the other hand, is reckoning the IMT’s mandate from February 28, 2010 when IMT-5 or Batch 5, was launched.

In his presentation at the 6th Mindanao Media Summit on November 6,  IMT-5 Head of Mission Maj. Gen. Datuk Baharom bin Hamzah,  also reckons the start of IMT-5 from February 28, 2010, not December 9, 2009.

According to the December 5 headline story in its website, www.luwaran.com, MILF Central Committee Information Chief and peace panel chair Mohagher Iqbal wrote peace talks facilitator, Datuk Othman bin Abd’ Razak of Malaysia on December 3, on the IMT stay until February 28, 2011.

But Iqbal explained that the IMT stay up to February 28, 2011 is “not an extension but a more pragmatic if not the correct reckoning for the one-year mandate given to the IMT by the Parties.”

“Unlike previous teams, IMT-5’s mandate was signed on December 9, 2009, but they only arrived in Mindanao particularly at their headquarters in Cotabato City on February 28, 2010; so this is a unique case, where no precedent in the past will be cited to rule on it. If we recall, the IMT-1 was from October 10, 2004 to September 10, 2005; IMT-2 from September 11, 2005 to September 8, 2006; IMT-3 from September 9, 2006 to September 3, 2007;  IMT-4 from September 4, 2007 to 30 November 2008, inclusive of the extension agreed by the Parties in an executive meeting. All of the batches practically came on time; and (2) this stay should not be interpreted as annulling, nullifying, or invalidating previous or established procedure agreed by the Parties that mandate of the IMT can only be granted, renewed, or extended by the GRP and MILF during face-to-face negotiation, and with the presence of the third party facilitator,” he wrote.

Under the Terms of Reference with the IMT,  its tour of duty can be extended if both government and the MILF peace panels request it.

Ceasefire of Words

Irene Santiago, chair and executive director of the Mindanao Commission on Women and a former member of the government peace panel in talks with the MILF from 2001 to 2004, urged the two panels to “talk to each other instead of to the media. As it were, declare a ceasefire of words outside the negotiating table. For both parties to signal their commitment to peace, they must get back to the negotiation table as soon as possible without preconditions. Everything is better negotiated face to face – even who should facilitate.”

The two panels have yet to break the deadlock on the issue of  Malaysia’s facilitator, Othman. The government peace panel wants him replaced for alleged bias; the MILF wants him retained.

Lawyer Camilo Montesa, a former member of the government peace panel’s technical committee, said the government and the MILF “are not singing the same tune.”

“Their interpretations are at odds. Looking at it from the point of the members of the IMT, the statements are confusing. If they accept to continue, what is it? Is it an extension or a mere clarification of reckoning date? Will the end be in February or in March? These issues will never be resolved until they start the talks. So we are back to square one: when will the talks start?” he asked.

Montesa added: “The conflicting statements of both the government and the MILF are unilateral statements and done outside the peace process. Their unilateral statements further provide instability on the ground. The only real interpretation as to when the IMT mandate will end is the one made by the parties in a formal meeting facilitated by Malaysia. Until that meeting happens,

The status of the IMT remains under a cloud. A GRP interpretation or an MILF interpretation will not clear that doubt. Only a GRP-MILF statement will do. So will we see the GRP-MILF statement soon?”

Gus Miclat, Executive Director of the Davao City-based Inititatives for International Dialogue, said “perhaps both chairs can meet quietly first facilitated by civil society if need be. The air is thick with too much posturing,” he said.

“Good development,” said Fr. Eliseo Mercado, executive director of the Institute for Autonomy and Governance (IAG). “The (three) months would hopefully give the two sides time to find a creative formula to resolve the impasse.”

Guiamel Alim, a member of the Council of Elders of the Consortium of Bangsamoro Civil Society (CBCS), wants government to seek a meeting of the two panels “even just for introduction purposes – getting to know each other muna. This is the best confidence-building gesture the government can show.”

Resume talks immediately, unconditionally

The Mindanao Peoples Caucus in a statement joined the call of thousands of internally displaced persons in urging the government to “resume the talks immediately and unconditionally” before the year ends.

“The issue on who should be the facilitator is something that can be addressed squarely at the negotiation table by both parties,” it said.

It also pointed out that the members of the government panel are “highly educated and brilliant personalities” who can “surely withstand any perceived bias” of Othman.

It stressed that the formal resumption of talks is “a matter of survival for the civilians in the conflict-affected areas.”

“Each day of delay in the peace talks is a day of a collective sense of insecurity, uncertainty and apprehension,” it said, adding that in in Pikit, North Cotabato, 300 families have already evacuated due to ongoing propaganda to prepare for war because there is no hope for the peace talks.  This is exacerbated by some movements on the part of  Marine soldiers in Cotabato City and some parts in Maguindanao which frighten local residents.”

Baharom in his presentation to the media last month said IMT-5 is composed of 39 members, 20 from Malaysia, 15 from Brunei, three from Libya and one from Japan who is focusing on development aspects. Of the 39 members, 33 are soldiers, six are civilians.

IMT-5 is the fifth contingent  deployed to Mindanao since 2004 by the governments of Malaysia, Libya, Brunei and Japan, to monitor the implementation of the ceasefire agreement between the Philippine government and MILF “in order to create a conducive environment for peace negotiation and development initiatives in the conflict-affected area of Mindanao.”

The European Union and Norway have accepted the invitations sent by the two parties early this year to join the IMT. The EU will serve as the lead monitor of the humanitarian, rehabilitation and development agreement. (Carolyn O. Arguillas/MindaNews)

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