GRP chair in peace nego with MILF: “Let us make peace happen. Immediately”

QUEZON CITY  (MindaNews/13 August) – The Philippine government is “eager to start talks” with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front “on the one substantive agenda: the comprehensive compact,” government peace panel chair Marvic Leonen, Dean of the University of the Philippiens’ College of Law, said.

Leonen told the National Solidarity Conference on Mindanao this afternoon that they are “aware of the drafts exchanged by the parties on January 27, 2010” and “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 the 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 establishment of a ‘state-sub-state form of governance in a future Bangsamoro state,” Leonen added.

The MILF peace panel has rejected government offers of “enhanced autonomy,” claiming the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) which it does not recognize, is a “failed experiment.”

The establishment of a “state-substate form of governance” requires amending the Constitution.

Mike Pasigan, who represented MILF information chief Mohagher Iqbal, the chair of the deactivated MILF peace panel,  told the Conference before noon that based on “research and investigation, the identity and the name of the alleged mastermind who is against the settlement of the Bangsamoro question is “Mr. Constitution.”

In the open forum that followed, Pasigan said, “if  we do not amend the Constitution, the peace talks will not move forward.”

Constitution is no problem

Leonen said the Constitution “provides space to find a political settlement including, if necessary and acceptable to all, a process of amendment and revision.”

“I do not see the Constitution as a problem. I view it as a normative reality that we should deal with and should also be considered in finding the solution,” he 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,”  Leonen concluded.

In the earlier part of his speech, Leonen allayed fears expressed by MILF chair Al Haj Murad Ebrahim that the government peace panel will insist on starting from scratch, localizing the talks and replacing the current talks facilitator.

“We do not intend to start from scratch. Let me repeat that. We do not intend to start from scratch,”  said the 47-year old Leonen, the youngest government chief negotiator in the history of the peace negotiations with the MILF.

“To even imply that we have even considered the possibility (of starting from scratch) is to underestimate the political sense and historical understanding of the negotiators that have already been named and of this entire administration. Our marching orders are to move forward and to move forward with due deliberation and sincerity,” Leonen told participants of the conference organized by the Mindanao Peoples Caucus and the Mindanao Solidarity Network.

Leonen is joined in the panel by members Miriam Coronel-Ferrer, a UP Political Science professor and former Agriculture Secretary Senen Bacani. Two other  members, whom Leonen hopes would be Mindanawons, will be joining the panel soon.

Due diligence

President Arroyo in his State of the Nation Address last July 26  had expressed hopes the talks would resume after Ramadan. Ramadan began on August 12 and will end  a month later.

Leonen stressed the need to review “with due diligence all the agreements that have been signed,” given that the present administration is “a new administration with an overwhelmingly fresh mandate from the electorate.”

“This does not mean that we will reject them – it only means that we are in the process of increasing our understanding of the implications and meanings of the provisions,” he added.

He said they are not limiting their review to the agreements that were signed but also government’s internal reports, briefings from relevant personalities and “soon, we will proceed to review the official minutes of the negotiations of the past nine years.”

“More importantly, we seek to assess how we can more effectively and efficiently comply with the obligations that have been committed by the past administration,” Leonen said.

He confirmed the MILF chair’s statement that the ground situation in the conflict-affected areas in Mindanao is acceptable. “We are particularly pleased by reports that the International Monitoring Team and the other mechanisms that are working satisfactorily. Even as we continue to review, we have honored our commitments that are necessary to provide for security, civilian protection and rehabilitation on the ground. This includes commitment of personnel as well as the proper budgetary allocations.”

He told MindaNews after his speech that the peace process mechanisms such as IMT, Joint Committee on the Cessation of Hostilities (JCCCH) and Ad Hoc Joint Action Group (AHJAG) will be retained.

He said they would look into the “MOA-AD (Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD),  Post MOA-AD” in its review. The MOA-AD was initialed by the government and MLF peace panels in July 2008 and was scheduled for formal signing in Kuala Lumpur a week later, on August 5, but the Supreme Court issued a temporary restraining order, preventing the government panel from signing the agreement.

Policy platform

At the conference, Leonen said that in the Aquino administration, a “just, meaningful, comprehensive and durable peace is a major policy platform.”

“Contrary to some naysayers from the past administration who continue to speculate based on their fears and inadequacies, the agenda is not simply counter-insurgency. Contrary to misreading of alleged statements made from our military, there are no plans for a total war solution,” he said.

He noted that the current peace negotiation “addresses a domestic situation with international interest.”

“Where the actual conversation takes place should be a function of where both parties are most comfortable. Where any negotiation takes place should facilitate discussion, it should not dominate the conversation. Like the MILF, we hope that this issue where we negotiate does not become an obstacle to reaching the more important goal of achieving a politically negotiated settlement.”

He expressed appreciation and gratitude to the embassies and other international state and non-state actors that have expressed willingness to continue to support the peace talks, but added, “we think it is legitimate for a new administration to review whether the current deployment is in harmony with understanding at present of the national interest.”

Welcome but…

“There is a realpolitik in international relations. Also, good intentions notwithstanding, too many international actors can work at cross purposes to each other when located within a single ground. International interest and assistance is welcome, but it is we who will have to make sure that they facilitate rather than – unwittingly – deter an agreement,” Leonen added.

Good negotiators, said Leonen, know that the process of the negotiation is “as important as the substance of the conversation.”

“We do not want the process to drive the substantive agenda. We want the process to facilitate it. And the process includes the levels of comfort that both negotiating parties have in relation to the parameters of the talks. It should include clear terms of reference that covers matters like the nature of the third party’s participation, protocols in communication, the setting of the agenda, sharing of the minutes of the meetings, possibilities for direct conversations between the parties, role of international actors, among others,” he said.

He said he does not think he and the new administration “can be faulted if we seek to review the terms of reference of the facilitation of the past discussions.”

He said he does not think it is unwise “for us to assess, based on the experience of the past panels and secretariats, whether we can be comfortable with the current facilitator.”

“I do not think that it is unwise for us to assess, based on the experience of the past panels and secretariats, whether we can be comfortable with the current facilitator. From our present understanding of what transpired towards the end of the past administration, this was even expected by the current facilitator. We would have thought that this would be welcomed by the other party and by the current facilitator (and the state to which she or he belongs), considering that it should show that we are sincere and professional in our tasks,” Leonen said.

Leonen said the challenge to the Aquino administration is whether it has the creativity and political will to effect the necessary changes. The challenge to the MILF, he added, is “whether it can be open, as creative and have the same political will to effect any agreed upon solution.”

The challenge to civil society, he said, is “how you can engage constructively and how you could help us meet the problems hurled by those who do not wish to engage constructively.” (Carolyn O. Arguillas/MindaNews)

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