July 8, 2013 and 2014: A year later, same issues hound Bangsamoro peace process  

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews / 09 July) — Between July 8, 2013 and July 8, 2014, the peace panels of the Philippine government (GPH) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) had accomplished so much — having signed three of the four Annexes to the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro (FAB) and the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB) itself – but they are back in Kuala Lumpur discussing the very same issues that hounded them last year and the rest of the 17-year old peace process.

The peace panels are in Kuala Lumpur on a three-day “special meeting” that started Tuesday, to resolve issues on the final text of the draft Bangsamoro Basic Law that President Aquino hopes “both sides will fully support and endorse” to Congress (see other story).

The MILF-led, 15-member Bangsamoro Transition Commission (BTC) submitted to Malacanang on April 22 its draft Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL). Malacanang took two months to review it and handed it back to the MILF on June 21, with MILF chair Al Haj Murad Ebrahim and MILF peace panel and BTC chair Mohager Iqbal raising their concerns over Malacanang’s proposed revisions during their meeting with President Aquino on June 24 in Hiroshima.

Apparently, the draft crafted by the joint GPH-MILF Commission appointed by the President, is, in its present form, not acceptable to the GPH while Malacanang’s proposed revisions to the BTC draft are not acceptable to the MILF, the other party in the negotiations.

The BTC in a resolution elevated the matter to the peace panels, hence this “special meeting” in Kuala Lumpur.

A year later

The “special meeting” started on July 8, exactly a year to the day the panels met in Kuala Lumpur after the May 2013 elections, to work on the Annex on Wealth-Sharing which it eventually signed after extending the July 8 to 11 talks by two more days. The Annex was signed in the early hours of July 13, coincidentally the 10th death anniversary of the MILF’s founding chair, Salamat Hashim.

The first half of 2013 was such a letdown after the euphoria over the signing of the FAB in October 2012. The FAB had both parties committing to finish the four annexes to the FAB – power-sharing, wealth-sharing, normalization, and transitional arrangements and modalities – and the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro – by yearend 2012.

The panels failed to meet their own deadline.

Only one Annex was signed in February 2013– the annex on transitional arrangements. Negotiations were also affected by the crisis in Sabah between forces loyal to the Sultan of Sulu and the Malaysian security forces in February and March, and the elections in both the Philippines and Malaysia in May 2013.

The panels managed to meet in April 2013 but no annex was signed. It was only in June, after MILF chair Al Haj Murad Ebrahim and President Aquino exchanged letters on the delayed talks, that a date was set for the resumption of the Malaysia-facilitated talks. The first date set was July 3 to 5 but was later moved to July 8 to 11.

In his opening statement on July 8 last year, Iqbal revealed that Murad “decided to write” President Aquino to reiterate the “unwavering commitment of the MILF to resolve the conflict peacefully” and “politely informed him (President) of the growing frustration of the people and some members of the MILF as a result of the delay of the talks.”

Iqbal said Murad explained to the President that the delay was perceived to be not coming from the side of the MILF but from the government and that the President “responded positively to the letter.”

“Major shake-up of status quo”

As chief negotiator since 2003, Iqbal then narrated that he had learned a lot of “hard lessons” and while the road ahead was still full of humps and bumps, “sincere and committed partners in peace process will always find creative formula to get through any differences.”

Iqbal also reminded everyone that “we are solving the Moro Problem or Question, not the Philippine Problem.”

“Remember that a historic injustice has been committed against the Bangsamoro, which must be corrected once and for all in order to put to rest all future legitimate struggles against the Manila government. Therefore, any solution requires a major shake-up of the status quo. A mere resort to legal remedies not founded on negotiated political settlement will not hold water,” he said.

Both parties had agreed in the April 2012 Decision Points and carried over into the FAB, that “the status quo is unacceptable” and that they would work on a new autonomous political entity in place of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), whose form of government would be ministerial.

“Above ARMM, below independence”

Iqbal also stressed that what is common in the country is a symmetrical relationship between the national government and local governments.

“It is what distinguishes the Bangsamoro from the rest of the inhabitants that we must address, and which distinctiveness we have already discovered the formula: ‘asymmetrical relationship.’ This means, the parties must find a political solution that is above the current Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) and below independence. If we faithfully subscribe to this formulation, the parties can move the process very fast. There would be no back-and-forth movements like what happened for the last more four months,” Iqbal said.

He explained that they rejected the ARMM because “it is not autonomous but an administrative region like the rest of the regions in the Philippines.”

“To fast-track the process, therefore, the government must not offer anything already granted to the ARMM especially by R.A. 9054 or by other legislations. For, these are givens that need no longer be negotiated on. On the other hand, the MILF must not demand anything reserved for an independent state. In order to aid them, they can learn from other models on state-substate asymmetrical relationship that are available around us,” said Iqbal.

Never again

Exactly a year later, the panels are back in Kuala Lumpur, discussing the same issues, this time on the draft Bangsamoro Basic Law, the MILF complaining that the proposed revisions of Malacanang would render the future Bangsamoro less autonomous than the present ARMM.

The “special meeting” is set to end on July 10, exactly 14 years to the day then President Joseph Estrada celebrated the government’s claimed victory over the MILF in the all-out war of 2000, a war that displaced nearly a million residents, a war that both panels have committed should not happen again.

Murad at the signing of the CAB on March 27 in Malacanang, said the CAB “finally brings with it the restoration of the identity, powers and resources of the Bangsamoro. These three things which have been ours since time immemorial, unjustly taken through colonization and occupation, are now returned to us.”

Inshaa Allah and Alhamdullillah, the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro is the ultimate solution to the undying aspiration of the Bangsamoro to have their rightful, decent and honorable standing as enjoyed by our forebears in bygone eras, and to live the present in an age of lasting peace, justice and prosperity,” he said.

In his speech at the signing of the CAB, President Aquino said: “Let us exchange our bullets for ripening fruit, our cynicism for hope, our histories of sorrow for a future of harmony, peace, and prosperity.”

“What is being presented before us now is a path that can lead to a permanent change in the status quo in Muslim Mindanao. But as with all change, its success depends on our continuous vigilance,” he said. (Carolyn O. Arguillas / MindaNews)