Leonen optimistic re January 2011 explo talks with MILF; Iqbal says he hopes for the best

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/28 December 2010) –  Government peace panel chair Marvic Leonen remains “optimistic that talks with the MILF (Moro Islamic Liberation Front) will resume in January” and hopes the MILF “can share that optimism” even as it posted on its website on December 25 that it has “completely ruled out any peace talks” with the government “until the issue of facilitator is finally settled.”

Leonen in a statement released by the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (OPAPP) today (December 28), has remained optimistic despite the fact that his December 2 letter inviting MILF peace panel chair Mohagher Iqbal for exploratory talks on or before December 14, has yet to reach his counterpart, 26 days later. The letter was handcarried by Leonen to Kuala Lumpur on December 2 and received by Deputy Prime Minister for Foreign Affairs Richard Riot.

Reacting to Leonen’s statement, Iqbal told MindaNews, “For the moment, I just hope for the best.”

“Most of these statements have been said time and again, and while I don’t put malice in them, it is not for me to share an unguarded optimism,” he said.

In his five-paragraph statement, Leonen said he agrees with the MILF that the facilitator issue be resolved.

Talks have run aground even before they could start on the issue of who will facilitate the peace negotiations. The government peace panel wants Malaysia, the third party facilitator, to replace Datuk Othman bin Abdul Razak for alleged bias, while the MILF wants him retained.

“We however remain confident that the proper officials in Malaysia already know our concerns. These have been communicated to them through the proper channels. We understand that the good offices they offer for the talks will take all these issues into consideration. We have informed them that we desire to have an acceptable politically negotiated settlement at the soonest possible time,” Leonen said.

Good faith

“A politically negotiated settlement is needed at the soonest possible time so that the energies of all can be channeled to addressing justice, lasting peace, sustainable development and prosperity for all peoples in Mindanao,” Leonen said.

He noted that administrative and security concerns “do arise while peace negotiations are ongoing” but added they prefer “to discuss these with our counterparts from the MILF as well as work on these issues first.  We have however continued with consultations with relevant sectors on many of the issues raised by the MILF.”

Leonen was apparently referring to Iqbal’s statement posted on the MILF website that they “would like to see a complete stop to the arrest of MILF officials and men and to release all those MILF political detainees without delay,” adding that if the government can release the Morong 43, the group tagged by the military as members of the New People’s Army, “it can also release those MILF political detainees especially Engr. Edward Guerra and Commander Aguilar Saligan immediately.”

“The release is a good confidence-building measure for the Aquino administration, which is steadily losing moral ascendancy in the present talks due to calibrated alibis not to start talks in July,” Iqbal was quoted as saying.

But Leonen said they would rather discuss these issues with their MILF counterparts and added they have “continued with consultations with relevant sectors on many of the issues raised by the MILF.”

“We think that this is what negotiating in good faith means. It also is the better part of prudence since issues taken out of context do contribute to environments which can only foster more violence. We invite all concerned to help us address the problems in the spirit of finding lasting solutions to a complex problem,” Leonen said.

Reacting to Leonen’s statement, Iqbal said, “most of these statements have been said time and again, and while I don’t put malice in them, it is not for me to share an unguarded optimism. It is too early to say…  in view of the almost six months (of the Aquino administration), which I considered wasted on basics which otherwise can be properly addressed during face-to-face negotiations.”

But Iqbal, in a statement e-mailed to MindaNews, added: “Rest assured that I have confidence in the trustworthiness of my good counterpart, but in matter of hard decision-making it is always the principal, in the case of the GRP, President Noynoy (or the few circle around him), who calls the last shot, and sometimes, negotiators do not really factor-in these decisions. For the moment, I just hope for the best.”

Replace, Retain Othman

While the government peace panel urged Malaysia to replace the talks facilitator, the MILF Central Committee in a resolution on November 13, urged Kuala Lumpur to retain Othman.

The resolution objected to the demand of the Philippine government to replace Othman and requested KL to retain Othman “in order to ensure continuity and preservation of the gains of the peace process.”

It also acknowledged that the choice of facilitator is “the call of the Malaysian government through Prime Minister Najib” and requested the Malaysian government to “finally settle this issue of facilitator so as not to delay further the early resumption of the GRP-MILF peace talks.”

On December 25, the MILF’s website reported that the Front has “completely ruled out any peace talks” with government “…anytime soon unless the issue of facilitator is finally settled.”

“We have requested the Malaysian government to retain Datuk Othman bin Abd’ Razak as facilitator and this still stands. It is not in the MILF mind to meet in January if the facilitator’s issue is not settled,” the article posted on luwaran.com said.

“Don’t’ worry”

Dato’ Seri Dr. Ibrahim Saad, Malaysian ambassador to the Philippines, told MindaNews on December 20 that there is nothing to worry about.  MindaNews had asked Saad what happened to Leonen’s December 2 letter to Iqbal which was coursed through Kuala Lumpur and which Iqbal had not received.

“I think KL will not send it anymore,” Iqbal told MindaNews on December 20. “Maybe KL did not like how it was delivered,” he said, adding Leonen should have coursed it through Othman at the OPM-RD (Office of the Prime Minister-Research Department) which is in charge of facilitating the talks or through the Malaysian secretariat in the talks, also lodged in the OPM-RD.

As of December 28, Iqbal has yet to receive the December 2 letter of Leonen.

But Saad said on December 20, “everything is in good hands.”

“Both governments (Philippines and Malaysia) are in the know. Let us give them a chance to move forward,” he said.

He declined to elaborate, saying only, in another message, “both governments are in the know, so let us leave it at that.”

On September 21, Saad told a press conference in Cotabato City that Malaysia wants the conflict between the Philippine government and the MILF “settled as soon as possible.”  (Carolyn O. Arguillas/MindaNews)

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