Impasse on wealth-sharing annex stalls GPH-MILF talks

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/14 June) – Eight months after the signing of the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro (FAB) and four months after President Benigno Simeon Aquino III said peace was “abot-kamay” (within reach),  notes on how to resolve the contentious  issues on the remaining three annexes have been exchanged but no date has been set for the resumption of  the talks as the panels have yet to break an impasse on the wealth-sharing annex.

Malaysian facilitator Tengku Dato’ Ab Ghafar Tengku Mohamed shuttled between Manila and Maguindanao last week but the positions of the parties remain as far apart as or even farther apart than it was in the last talks in April.

In their Joint Statement at the end of the talks in Kuala Lumpur on April 11, the panels said they would “meet again after the May 13 Philippine elections” and affirmed their commitment to “finally settle these issues soon so that all three annexes may be signed without undue delay.”

UNTIL THE NEXT TALKS. Prof. Miriam Coronel-Ferrer, chair of the government peace panel and Mohagher Iqbal, chair of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front peace panel in Kuala Lumpur at the end of the round of talks in April.  No date has been set for the resumption of the talks. MindaNews file photo by Carolyn O. Arguillas
UNTIL THE NEXT TALKS. Prof. Miriam Coronel-Ferrer, chair of the government peace panel and Mohagher Iqbal, chair of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front peace panel in Kuala Lumpur at the end of the round of talks in April. No date has been set for the resumption of the talks. MindaNews file photo by Carolyn O. Arguillas

To complete the comprehensive peace pact that would pave the way for the creation of the  “Bangsamoro,” four annexes are supposed to be signed. These are the annexes on wealth-sharing, power-sharing, normalization and transitional arrangements and modalities.

In the FAB, both parties agreed to complete the annexes by yearend 2012.  The panels are six months behind schedule.

It has been two months since the April talks and a month after the elections.

By June 15, it will have been eight months since the October 15, 2012 signing in Malacanang of the FAB, leaving the Aquino administration only 36.5 months to set up what has been touted as its legacy project — the new autonomous political entity called “Bangsamoro” – supposedly by the time the President steps down on June 30, 2016.

GPH peace panel chair Miriam Coronel-Ferrer told MindaNews on June 9 that the facilitator “arrived on Friday (June 7) and we have exchanged notes and messages on the issues related to the wealth and power sharing annexes.”

Tengku went to Maguindanao on June 6 and 7 and returned to Malaysia on June 9.

“All avenues to hasten the resolution of the difficult issues are being tapped before he full panel formal talks,” she said.

Earlier, Ferrer told MindaNews the date of the next talks would be set only “after exchange of notes and most issues are resolved.”

Only one of four annexes

Only one annex has been signed since the FAB signing: the Annex on Transitional Arrangements and Modalities on Februrary 27.  But without the three main annexes, there is nothing to transition to.

Although it was not cited in their Joint Statement on February 27, the  Annex on Wealth-Sharing was initialled that day by GPH peace panel member Senen Bacani and MILF peace panel member Abhoud Syed Lingga.

After the GPH-MILF Technical Working Group (TWG) on Wealth-Sharing submitted its report, the two panels had agreed to create a special team from the panels – headed by Bacani and Lingga – to handle wealth-sharing.  The draft annex was initialled in the presence of the peace panel chairs and members, the Malaysian facilitator and the International Contact Group.

MILF peace panel chair Mohagher Iqbal told MindaNews on June 8 that the GPH panel was “causing the delay of the talks.”

“They are backtracking from what they conceded in the initialed wealth-sharing annex,” he said.

Asked to comment on Iqbal’s statement, Ferrer told MindaNews that “wealth-sharing matters initialed at TWG level (were) based on common understanding (that they) shall be subject to review by principals.”

In a Q and A with Ferrer released by the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (OPAPP) on June 13, Ferrer’s response to the question on “where are we now” is that the exchange of notes has commenced “and through this process, we hope to come as close as possible to agreed language and return to Kuala Lumpur to be able to finalize the Annexes on Power and Wealth-sharing very soon.”

“Due diligence”

But only Ferrer appears optimistic the talks would resume “very soon.”  Iqbal remains firm the MILF will not re-negotiate the initialed Annex on Wealth-Sharing.

On April 11 in Kuala Lumpur,  Iqbal told MindaNews: “Government is not ready to sign Wealth-Sharing. MILF is very ready.”

On the same day, Ferrer told MindaNews that there were only two remaining key issues in the Annex on Power-sharing: “the allocation of the powers across the different items pertaining to transportation and communications and the concept of regional waters.”

In the Annex on Wealth-Sharing, Ferrer said, “it’s really getting the whole picture, it’s the fine-tuning and getting the sum total of all the obligations that will be committed by government.”

She said due diligence was being conducted “now that we have the sum total of taxes, block grants, subsidies, revenue shares…and government wants to be very clear about the kinds of commitments  it will be making.”

Ferrer explained that the review process takes long. “Unlike in the case of the MILF when they are focused on this thing, government is focused on many things, it has many agendas so that means in a matter that requires extensive discussion, understanding of the full implications and consensus of all branches of government that will be affected here, then that‘s a process that takes some time in the midst of all the regular governance functions, in the midst of all issues that government is facing.”

“Under review”

On June 12, Ferrer told MindaNews that the GPH proposals are now “under review by MILF.”

But the MILF apparently does not intend to review the GPH proposals because on the same day,  a report in the MILF website, luwaran.com, said the MILF “will hold on to initialled annex on wealth-sharing.”

Quoting a peace panel member whom it did not name, luwaran.com said the MILF “has no plan to abandon that document” and that “backtracking by any of the two parties is a serious drawback to the peace process.”

“The peace negotiation is an exercise in futility if there is no stop to this changing of positions by the government negotiating team,” the report said.

“We are not renegotiating the initialed document,” the report added.

The report also said that in the April talks, Iqbal said that “except for those that are in harmony with the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro (FAB), we don’t accept the changes introduced by government on wealth-sharing.”

The second time GPH allegedly changed position was in the “notes” sent to the MILF through the Malaysian facilitator. The report did not say what were in the “notes” but said the initialed document was “diluted severely by the notes” from the GPH.

“Two changes of positions in a row within the span of two months is alarming,” luwaran quoted Iqbal as saying.

“Final review”

In the June 13 Q and A released by OPAPP,  Ferrer explained that “prudence” on the part of the government requires that it “undergoes a final review before the President gives his final stamp of approval.”

She repeated previous statements that the President is “committed to delivering an agreement that will allow the Bansamoro to enjoy effective and meaningful fiscal autonomy but also take into account the legal, political, and administrative constraints of the Central Government.”

Ferrer said these are the considerations “as to why Government wishes to introduce some changes to the draft annex, particularly with regard some aspects of taxation, fund transfer mechanisms, and revenue sharing.”

Ferrer did not say what these “changes” are. Iqbal would not say either.

But he told MindaNews on June 14 that there were “more changes” introduced in the notes GPH sent to them last week through the Malaysian facilitator than what the GPH presented in April, thus bringing the parties farther apart in their positions.

As early as April, the MILF had already turned down the government panel’s proposed “changes.”

MindaNews learned from sources in both panels that one of the points of disagreement is that a sharing system on natural resources in favor of the Bangsamoro government as agreed upon and initialed on February 27, is being brought down by government to 50-50 which is what Republic Act 9054, the law that amended the Organic Act creating the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) provides under Article IX, Section 15.

“More than 9054”

In both the power and wealth sharing TWGs, the major issue is how much more powers would be granted to the Bangsamoro than what has been granted to the ARMM under RA 9054.

In November, a month after the signing of the FAB and the last round of talks attended by then GPH peace panel chair Marvic Leonen (he was appointed Supreme Court Justice the following week),  Leonen told MindaNews that what the GPH was offering to the MILF “will be more than 9054… it cannot be less.”

Asked how much is “more,” Leonen replied that this is what the TWGs are discussing.  He defined “more” as “more that will be satisfactory to the MILF.”

Ma. Lourdes Lim,  NEDA regional director and chair of the GPH-TWG on wealth-sharing told MindaNews that the powers proposed for the Bangsamoro on wealth-sharing would be more than what RA 9054 provides. “(RA) 9054 is the minimum. That is our reference point. That’s the baseline,” she said.

On February 11, at the launching of the socio-economic project,  Sajahatra Bangsamoro, at the Bangsamoro Leadership and Management Institute compound in Sultan Kudarat, Maguindanao, President Aquino said, “abot-kamay  na po ang bunga ng kapayapaang kay tagal nating inaasam-asam” (The fruits of peace that we have long cherished are now within reach).

“Heartbreak Hill”

The  President likened the stage of the peace process then to the “Heartbreak Hill” of the Boston Marathon.

The President’s family lived in exile in Boston  for a couple of years during the Marcos dictatorship.

He said that on the last mile of the marathon, when the runner already sees the finish line, the terrain goes uphill but there is no stopping.

“While nearing the peak of ‘Heartbreak Hill’ there will be more intrigues, more difficult process. But our trust for each other will get us through,” the President said.

Four months later, the panels are still stuck at “Heartbreak Hill.”

It used to be that those who get past “Heartbreak Hill” are certain to reach the finish line.

On April 15,  thousands of runners who survived “Heartbreak Hill” did not  reach the finish line. Two bombs exploded just as it was  “abot-kamay.” (Carolyn O. Arguillas/MindaNews)

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