LET THE TALKS BEGIN: Let the panels meet

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/01 January) — The prospects for a  negotiated peace settlement looked more promising for the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) than for the National Democratic Front (NDF) at the start of the Aquino administration on June 30.

Five months later, the government and NDF peace panel chairs had hit the ground running while the peace process between the government and the MILF has run aground.

In his inaugural address, President Benigno Simeon Aquino III said his administration is “committed to a peaceful and just settlement of conflicts, inclusive of the interests of all – may they be Lumads, Bangsamoro or Christian.”

Fifteen days later,  he named Marvic Leonen, Dean of the University of the Philippines College of Law, as peace panel chair in the negotiations with the MILF and on July 26, in his first State of the Nation Address, expressed hope that the peace negotiations “will begin after Ramadan.”

Ramadan ended on September 9.

The MILF named its peace panel four days later.

On December 5, Leonen made public his December 2 visit to Kuala Lumpur to handcarry three letters: the President’s letter to Malaysian Prime Minister Najib in response to the latter’s written acceptance of the country facilitator role, a note verbale asking Malaysia to extend the tour duty of  its contingent in the International Monitoring Team and a letter for MILF peace panel chair Mohagher Iqbal,  inviting him for exploratory talks on “December 6, 7, 8, 13 and 14 as possible dates” to address “urgent concerns.”

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

“Urgent concerns”

Leonen said among the “urgent concerns” are the facilitation issue and security guarantees, including the case of Engr. Eduard Guerra (alias 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 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.

“I will wait” (for the letter), Iqbal said on December 5. By December 12, he was still waiting. (As of January 1, 2011, Leonen’s letter of invitation has not reached Iqbal).

Leonen had coursed the letter through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “Why did Leonen go to the Foreign Ministry when the RD (Office of the Prime Minister-Research Department or OPM-RD) handles the peace talks?” Iqbal asked. “This is too circuitous,” he said, adding Leonen “should have gone to Othman (Malaysian facilitator Datuk Othman bin Razak) or the Malaysian secretariat.”

But Leonen precisely would not go the OPM-RD. His panel wants Othman replaced for alleged bias. The MILF on the other hand wants Othman retained.

Smooth take off

It took the President only 15 days to name a peace panel chair for the negotiations with the MILF. In contrast,  it took him until October 21 or almost four months later, to name lawyer Alexander Padilla as chair of the government peace panel negotiating with the NDF.

Forty days later, Padilla, formerly of the Justice Department and later Health Undersecretary, and NDF peace panel chair Luis Jalandoni met in Hong Kong for informal talks on December 1 and 2,  agreed on a ceasefire from December 16 to January 3, and scheduled yet another informal meeting second week of January, in preparation for the formal negotiations on or about the third week of  February 2011. The NDF withdrew from the talks in August 2005.

It helped that Padilla and Jalandoni had known each other  in the days of the anti-Marcos dictatorship. Padilla was a member of the national council of the Bagong Alyansang Makabayan and was secretary-general of the Nationalist Alliance for Justice, Freedom and Democracy.

No strangers

Leonen and the MILF peace panel members may not be close friends but they’re not strangers, either.

After the aborted signing of the already initialed Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD) in August 2008, Leonen met with Iqbal and senior panel member Datu Michael Mastura in the MILF’s Camp Darapanan in Sultan Kudarat, Maguindanao “in the context of a College of Law-sponsored university consortium research on the possible parameters of talks with the MILF for the new administration.”

Little did Leonen know that he would be the peace panel chair of the new administration.

The Aquino administration is the fourth since the peace negotiations with the MILF started in 1997, under then President Fidel Ramos. The talks were interrupted by three wars – the “all-out war” of then President Joseph Estrada in 2000, the Buliok war in 2003 under President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, and the aftermath of the aborted signing of the MOA-AD on August 5, 2008, also under Arroyo.

At the forum with the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines in Camp Darapanan on August 9, Al Haj Murad Ebrahim, MILF peace panel chair, said, “the only way in the peace process is forward in order to complete the peace talks where we left off last June 3, this year. But for the government, it seems they are still trying to catch up with their breath on which way to go. Hints are piling up that they want to start the talks from scratch, want to localize the talks, and to replace the facilitator of the talks. If true, these are serious propositions that can delay or even imperil the peace talks.”

The two panels had signed a “Declaration of Continuity for Peace Negotiations” on June 3, with then government peace panel chair Rafael Seguis, saying, “Today, we put closure to this stage of the peace negotiations with a clear statement by both Parties that we will preserve our gains and accomplishments, and work our best for the continuation of the talks.  We give honor to our past, and anticipate the future with great hope.”

At the National Solidarity Conference on Mindanao on August 13 at the University Hotel in UP Diliman, Leonen allayed Murad’s fears.  ”We do not intend to start from scratch,” he stressed.

“We are eager to start talks on the one substantive agenda: the comprehensive compact. We are aware of the drafts exchanged by the parties on January 27, 2010. We will build on three realities: first, that the MILF has expressed that it has dropped its option for independence–that it is not negotiating for independence, but the highest form of autonomy; second, that the submissions of the parties (with Arroyo administration as the other party) are currently poles apart; and third, our mandate as framed by the President. We note that the MILF has rejected certain forms of “enhanced autonomy” and has proposed the idea of a establishment of a “state-sub-state form of governance in a future Bangsamoro state,” Leonen said.

“Our hand is extended in peace. It is extended consciously and deliberately. A hand extended in peace is a hundred times stronger and a million times more courageous than one that picks up a gun. Do not doubt the sincerity of this administration. Do not doubt my sincerity. Take it, and let us make peace happen. Immediately,” said Leonen.


But sitting across the negotiating table with the MILF did not happen immediately. In fact, as of December 12, the panels had not met (as of January 1, 2011, no meeting has taken place).

The apparent openness of both panels, however, and the determination of civil society to get the two panels to meet, have helped resolve problems, such as the continued stay of the Malaysian-led International Monitoring Team (IMT) which has a mandate of one year.

Reckoning the mandate from the signing on December 9, 2009, the government in notes verbales to IMT member-countries Malaysia, Brunei, Libya and Japan, asked for a three-month extension or until March 9, 2001, Technically, the request should be made by both panels. The MILF said it wasn’t asking for extension but a “more pragmatic if not the correct reckoning” of the mandate. The MILF reckons it from February 28, 2010 when the IMT-5 was formally launched. The IMT-5 head of mission, Maj. Gen. Datuk Baharom bin Hamzah,  in his presentation before the 6th Mindanao Media Summit in early November also reckoned the start to February 28.

Whether the mandate ends on February 28 or March 9 next year is not yet clear but what is certain is that both panels had been able to buy time and the IMT continues to stay at least until February 28.

Guiamel Alim, a member of the Council of Elders of the Cotabato City-based Consortium of Bangsamoro Civil Society said civil society “must encourage the panels to start the exploratory talks ASAP to ease tensions.”

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.”

Zainudin Malang, executive director of the Mindanao Human Rights Action Center, said the continued stay of the IMT and the exploratory 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,” he said.

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.”

“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,” 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.  [This piece is one of 20 on the theme, “Let the Talks Begin” in the first issue of  OUR Mindanao, the monthly publication of the Mindanao News and Information Cooperative Center (MNICC) which runs MindaNews and www.mindanews.com. Carolyn O. Arguillas is editor in chief of OUR Mindanao and news editor of MindaNews].