Sabah crisis hounds TransCom presscon

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/03 April) – The moderator of the press conference had to butt in to remind reporters that the press conference was not about Sabah but about the Transition Commission (TransCom).

But reporters attending the press conference of what was touted to be the “first en banc meeting”  of the GPH-MILF’s (Philippine government and Moro Islamic Liberation Front)  TransCom at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Pasig City on Wednesday noon,  pressed on, with more than half of the 43-minute press briefing spent on questions about the Sabah crisis and Malaysia,  the third party facilitator of the GPH-MILF peace talks since 2001.

In fact, the press conference, aired liver over ANC (ABS-CBN News Channel) started and ended with questions on Sabah, even as MILF peace panel chair and concurrent TransCom chair Mohagher Iqbal had repeatedly said it is “not part of the agenda” of the GPH-MILF peace process but a “bilateral issue between the Philippine government and Malaysia.”

Reporters wanted to know, among others, if Malaysia, the third party facilitator in the GPH-MILF peace talks, would have a role in the TransCom, the body created to craft the Bangsamoro Basic Law (see other story) or if  the Sabah issue would be addressed in the Basic Law.

Iqbal explained that Malaysia, which has been facilitating and hosting the GPH-MILF peace negotiations in Kuala Lumpur since 2001, facilitates the peace negotiations but has no role in the TransCom.

“As to whether the Sultanate of  Sulu has valid claim (over Sabah), what we propose, what we suggest, what we would like to appeal to all parties is to settle the issue peacefully,” he said.

Iqbal said he does not see a conflict of interest in Malaysia’s role as facilitator amid questions on alleged human rights abuses against Filipinos in Sabah, particularly the Orang Suluk, as Tausugs are referred to in Sabah. Tausugs are part of the Bangsamoro.

Describing the question as “very delicate,” Iqbal pointed out that since the standoff in Lahad Datu between the “Royal Security Forces of  the Sultanate of Sulu and North Borneo” led by Raja Muda Agbimuddin Kiram and Malaysian authorities happened, the Malaysian government and President Aquino had been saying it would not affect the GPH-MILF peace process. “Ganon  rin po ang  paninindigan ng MILF” (That is also the stand of the MILF).

He said postponing the talks or changing venue would be a double loss: an unresolved Sabah problem and the peace talks as casualty.

“As far as we are concerned, the facilitation of Malaysia not a question because facilitation is already an institution and it was established way back in 2001,”  Iqbal said, adding, “Ganon ang paniniwala namin at ganon ang paninindigan ng MILF. Hindi ho nadungisan yung position ng Malaysia as facilitator. Kasi matagal na po ito at saka institution ito” (This is our belief and this is our stand. Malaysia’s position as facilitator has not been tainted. It’s an institution).

Asked how they would address the reported human rights violations experienced by the Bangsamoro people in Sabah, Iqbal said, “hindi ko po sinasabi na walang katotohanan yun (I am not saying these are not true) but it still remains an allegation. So since the issue of the current conflict in Sabah is a bilateral issue between the Philippines and Malaysia, they should talk it out.”

Another reporter asked if Sabah “or some mention about Sabah or how to settle it” would be part of the Bangsamoro Basic Law.

TransCom member Maulana “Bobby” Alonto, also an MILF peace panel member, replied: “That’s a very difficult question to answer. But we have not yet crafted the basic law. So far as Sabah is concerned…. it is not an issue in the peace negotiation. It is a matter that involves bilateral negotiations between the Philippine government and the Malaysian government but is not an issue in the peace negotiation.”

“But will it be in the Basic Law,” the reporter asked.

Alonto replied: “We will cross the bridge when we get there.”

Iqbal added that Sabah has never been a subject in the negotiation, not by the GPH-MILF, not even by the GPH-MNLF in the 1976 and 1996 peace agreements. “Nowhere in the provisions of  both agreements will you find the issue of Sabah so it has never been an issue in the negotiation. I am not saying walang karapatan, I’m not saying that but it  has never been an issue.”

“If Sabah is not an issue,” a reporter asked, what assistance can the Bangsamoro political entity extend to the Bangsamoro reportedly facing abuses in Sabah.

Former Sulu Representative Asani Tammang, GPH representative to the TransCom, said that while the Sultanate of Sulu believes that Sabah belongs to them, “they should pursue the resolution in a legal and peaceful manner” given that the Sultanate and the people of Sabah are both Muslims “and therefore they should settle this through legal and peaceful means, not through violence.”

“For the moment,  we have not started crafting the law. So it is a bit premature for us to say supposedly what we will do or not because we have not yet started crafting the law. But as said by our colleague, we will cross the bridge when we reach the bridge.”

“The bridge is already here,” the reporter shot back.

“Granting the bridge is already here ,we have not discussed among ourselves. It has to be a consensual decision,” said Iqbal.

Iqbal repeated the MILF’s stand on the issue, that Sabah is  “not part of the agenda”
and  “has never been a part of  the negotiations. Simple. Period.”

He acknowledged that Sabah is “a difficult issue” but  explained that it is “not part of our talking points” in the TransCom because the TransCom is guided by the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro. “It cannot go beyond that.”

Asked if Sabah “is now becoming an issue that could possibly affect the talks,” Iqbal asked Fatmawati Salapuddin, TransCom member from the GPH, to answer

Salapuddin, who hails from Sulu, said the TransCom was created by Executive Order and is under the Office of the President and that the President “has been giving instructions to the different agencies that can help our people in Sabah.”

“We have to think of this as a country. We belong to a community of nations,  in the ASEAN and our government is ensuring that everything will be always done to give assistance to our people , to each and every citizen who will be under some sort of deprivation or difficulty across our shores, overseas.”

“We are of different ethnic groups here and as the chairman has been saying and  Atty. Tammang has been saying, we will surely talk about that but as we are in search of peace ,we will surely talk about Sabah, on how we can actually pursue and help a very peaceful settlement for that matter but it is not a primary function because we have to look into the assignment that we have been assigned to. But as to our people in Sulu, be it Tausug, and our brothers the Maranaos, Maguindanaos, all of us Muslims, even the converts in this country, we will surely see how peaceful means will be able to help everybody. “

Asked if a “durable basic law” can be had without tackling Sabah, Iqbal passed on the question to the youngest TransCom member, the 28-year old Johaira Wahab from Maguindanao.

Wahab, chief legal counsel of the GPH peace panel, said the work of the TransCom is not going to take place in a social or political vacuum but explained that the mandate of the TransCom is what is written in the Executive Order which is bsed on the FAB.

“The Sabah issue as we have said has not been part of the negotiations. Why is that? Because it is a diplomatic issue between the Philippine government and the Malaysian government,” Wahab said.

She acknowledged that the narrative of one Bangsamoro individual is as much part of the narrative of the Bangsamoro people as a whole, that there are several dimensions to the Sabah question – political, historical, social and humanitarian. She explained that part of the TransCom’s mandate is to conduct consultations and “it is not the intention of this body to ignore the realities on the ground.”

Wahab said they will “talk to communities in all of the areas concerned… those that will be affected by the Bangasmoro Basic Law” including the people in the island provinces of Sulu, Basilan and Tawi-tawi.

“However, the reason that we are very careful in handling the Sabah issue is because this is the Bangsamoro Transition Commission, this is not the Department of Foreign Affairs,” said Wahab, who recently topped the Foreign Service Officers exam given out by the DFA.

She said the Sabah issue is not part of their mandate not part of the negotiations “but we will admit to you that in our individual capacities, and given our background – we are all Bangsamoro – we commiserate with them, we have worked and we are engaged with these communities in other ways, though not as the Transition Commission.”

Wahab emphasized the mandate of the TransCom and the need to work within that mandate. “The Task of crafting basic law is a humongous endeavor and we acknowledge that. So we need to focus on that as a primary task. And we have a timetable. Kaya po namin ini-emphasize ang aming mandate. On the other hand, we are not ignoring the realities of the Bangsamoro people in the various areas in the Bangsamoro core territory.”

Iqbal added that in the negotiations on power-sharing, they are discussing the powers for the central government, powers of the Bangsamoro government and concurrent power but “the issue of foreign policy falls within the jurisdiction of government, it does not fall within the competence of the Bangsamoro.” (Carolyn O. Arguillas/MindaNews)