How the GPH-MILF Framework deal was (finally) sealed

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DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/10 October)  —  If the Framework Agreement reached by the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) peace panels in Kuala Lumpur proves to be truly historic years from now,  everyone involved in the undertaking would look back to Saturday, October 6, 2012 as a day of shuttling and Skyping, disappearances and  texting and calling by mobile phone, until both panels —  and their principals back home — could finally say “it is done” at 10:40 p.m.

THE ROAD AHEAD. Mohagher Iqbal, chair of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front peace panel, and Marvic Leonen, chair of the government peace panel, in a casual conversation inside the State Room of the Palace of the Golden Horses Hotel in Kuala Lumpur, while waiting to watch President AquinoÕs address to the nation streamed live from Malaca�ang. The two panels finished their Framework Agreement late Saturday night. MindaNews photo by Carolyn O. ArguillasThe number 13 would figure prominently in what turned out to be the longest day for the peace panels, clocking  13 hours to finally complete the crafting of the 13-page Framework Agreement on the 13th round of talks under the Aquino administration.

It was also the longest meeting in the 15-year history of the GPH-MILF peace talks – six days from October 2 to 7 , with two extensions – initially from October 5 to 6 then 6 to 7, and   occasional “disappearances” of panel members from the  State Room at the lower ground floor of the Palace of the Golden Horses hotel, venue of the negotiations.

Neither panel stays in the hotel but as in previous negotiations, the GPH panel rented a room in the Palace to hold their caucuses — and  there were many last week — particularly on Saturday.

The MILF panel on the other hand,  went to a nearby hotel from where they could consult via Skype with members of the  Central Committee that had assembled, according to an MILF source, initially in Camp Darapanan, Sultan Kudarat, Maguindanao, the MILF ‘s main camp now.

But the Central Committee, the source said,  eventually had to move to Cotabato City for the discussions via Skype because of  poor signal in Darapanan.  There was a separate Skyping with MILF chair Al Haj Murad Ebrahim who was in another area.

When members of the peace panels disappeared from the State Room and were not in the foyer, the breakout rooms or comfort rooms, you can bet they were in their respective caucus rooms.

Missing Leonen

On Friday, however, government (GPH) peace panel chair Marvic Leonen did not arrive with his panel as he usually does, did not show up the whole day, and the panel left at around 5:30 that afternoon with Leonen still missing.

No one, however, made an issue out of his disappearance that day.

MILF peace panel chair Mohagher Iqbal and his members, the Malaysian facilitator Tengku Dato’ Ab Ghafar Tengku Mohamed and secretariat, members of the International Contact Group and the other members of the GPH panel and staff  knew why Leonen was absent. It was a secret shared by all of them (and shared with MindaNews as well but strictly off the record then).

Leonen flew to Manila at 1:20 a.m. that day via Cebu Pacific Air, bringing with him the latest draft of the Framework Agreement and what the technical working groups had finished as of Thursday night, to brief the President and what Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process Teresita Quintos-Deles described to MindaNews in a text message Friday night as a ”very major Cabinet-level meeting.”

The meeting, she said, was “ok as ok can be, considering we have no control on the other side.”

Like the rest of the GPH peace panel left behind in Kuala Lumpur, the MILF, Malaysians and the ICG were eagerly awaiting feedback on the Malacanang meeting that  Friday afternoon.

When they were about to go up the stairs to return to their hotel at around 5:30 p.m. GPH panel member gathered around Prof. Miriam Coronel-Ferrer who was saying something that made them cheer and applaud. Apparently word had reached them that the meeting in Malacanang went well.

Tengku adjourned the Friday session a little after 5 p.m.  Unconfirmed reports said he was meeting with Malaysian Prime Minister Dato’ Sri Mohammad Najib bin Tun Abdul Razak.

On Sunday afternoon, Tengku told MindaNews he did brief the Prime Minister  personally on what was happening particularly because of media reports that there would be a signing of the Framework Agreement on Saturday.

In fact, a TV crew arrived shortly before 9 am. Saturday to take footage of the arriving panel members.

Return home when done

Before coming to Kuala Lumpur for the supposed October 2 to 5 talks, the mood on both sides of the fence was “we will return home only when we’re done.”

As early as Tuesday, October 2,  Day One of the talks, everyone knew Leonen was flying to Manila on Wednesday night for a Thursday meeting in Malacanang and that he would return to Kuala Lumpur from there, for the supposed closing session on Friday, October 5.

Early afternoon of Day Two, Wednesday,  MindaNews overheard secretariat members canceling and rebooking Leonen’s flight.

Late Wednesday afternoon, Leonen told MindaNews that he was not leaving that evening but would fly to Manila the next day and that the talks would be extended another day – or until Saturday, October 6. Thursday’s session ended at around 7:30 p.m.

Leonen returned to Kuala Lumpur late Friday night and briefed his panel about the Malacanang meeting over breakfast in their hotel on Saturday.

The Friday afternoon meeting in Malacanang took about three hours – from 2 p.m. to around 5 p.m.,  Leonen told MindaNews Saturday morning.

“Paper talk”

That Saturday, supposed to be the last day, saw a major change in the facilitation of the talks. Instead of talking face to face, the panels were made to do “paper talk,” shuttling documents for the final wordings of the still contentious provisions, particularly on normalization. The MILF wanted a separate police force for the Bangsamoro, the GPH said it should be under the national police.  In the end they would agree to an independent commission that would be organized to “recommend appropriate policing within the area,” with representatives from the parties and “may invite local and international experts on law enforcement to assist the commission in its work.”

Indeed, as Tengku said Saturday afternoon about the paper shuttling: “it’s faster that way.”

The parties apparently wanted to avoid getting bogged down by possible lengthy oral arguments.

Tengku had said that text already agreed upon were highlighted in bold to make it easier for both parties to know which provisions remain unresolved.

Leonen and his panel members would be seen going up and down the stairway en route to their caucus room several times. From 10:41 a.m. when he said from the stairs that they were going up for “workshop groups” to 2:09 p.m., Leonen had gone up and down at least four times.

Almost, Not yet

At 1:18 p.m., GPH panel members Bai Yasmin Busra Lao and Dr. Hammid Barra were seen going up. “Hapit na,” (Almost there), Lao told MindaNews.

A minute later, another GPH panel member, Prof. Miriam Coronel-Ferrer, went up the stairway.
“Malapit na?” (Almost?), asked MindaNews. “Hindi pa” (Not yet), she said. At 2:09 p.m.,  Leonen went up the stairway and said, “hindi pa tapos” (not yet done), adding it will likely be “bukas pa” (tomorrow).

The government panel apparently had lunch in their caucus room.

Lunch at the Congress II room was waiting for both parties, including their technical working groups. MILF members started entering it only at 1:48 p.m. Iqbal entered the room at 2:12.

Like Leonen, Iqbal said there may be another extension, again by one day.

At 3:49 p.m, Leonen told MindaNews,  “nag rebook na kami” (we have rebooked our flights).

The Malaysian facilitator confirmed the extension by one more day. It was to be the second extension.

Highlighted in bold

Although he acknowledged that “a lot” of provisions had already been highlighted in bold, Tengku said an extension was necessary to give the parties “a breath of fresh air.”

The panels went into plenary session only at nearly 7 p.m. with some panel members  disappearing every so often.

MILF senior panel member Datu Michael Mastura, the lone lawyer among the five-member panel and known in the peace negotiations as “hardliner,”  was not in the plenary.

His colleagues at the panel said he was assigned to consult with the Central Committee and the Ulama via Skype, on the remaining contentious provisions.

Mastura later told MindaNews that he “got behind the scene crafting remaining paragraphs . correlating provisions by teleconferencing.”

MindaNews noted Leonen going in and out of the foyer of the Theatrette on the same floor at least four times at 7:38,  9:20, 9:30 and 9:37.  Leonen the next day confirmed it was the President on the other end of the line.

In the last call, a member of the secretariat who was near Leonen frantically called out to another  member, asking for “Paper, paper,”  grabbed the piece of paper and ran to where Leonen was.

At 10:44 p.m., government peace panel members Ferrer, Bai Yasmin Busra Lao, Senen Bacani and Dr. Hamid Barra, left the State Room to return to their hotel downtown.

Leonen stepped out of the State Room at 11:01 p.m. Iqbal at 11:15 p.m.

Both panels and the rest of those in the plenary kept mum a deal had been sealed, apparently to give the honor of announcing that an agreement had been reached, to President Aquino

Early morning Sunday, Malacanang issued a media advisory that President Aquino “will be issuing a statement today, Oct. 7 (Sunday), 12:45 p.m., at the President’s Hall,  Malacanan Palace.”  (Carolyn O. Arguillas/MindaNews)

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