GPH, MILF renew mandate of IMT, AHJAG; optimistic re political settlement in a year

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/11 February) —   Both panels expressed optimism one year is a reasonable period “to come to a fundamental agreement on a politically negotiated settlement,” renewed the mandate of the International Monitoring Team (IMT) and the Ad Hoc Joint Action Group (AHJAG) for another year, agreed to meet again, “tentatively,” on March 29 and 30, and signed a Joint Statement, their first ever in the seven-month Aquino administration,  the government peace panel chair in red ink, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the Malaysian facilitator as witness, in black.

Leonen said “‘that’s part of my signature. I always sign in red.”

The ten-paragraph Joint Statement issued in Kuala Lumpur at the end of the two-day exploratory talks (the first under the Aquino administration, the 20th since after the 2003 war),  also noted that the MILF peace panel “officially submitted a revised draft of the Comprehensive Compact” with the government peace panel asking for time to “review and submit its own proposals.”

The MILF submitted its draft compact on January 27, 2010 which it withdrew and replaced with the new draft but the “essential elements” of the new draft  “are similar to the first,” MILF peace panel chair Mohagher Iqbal, said. (see separate story).

Government peace panel chair Dean Marvic Leonen described the meeting as “cordial” while  Iqbal described it as tough” and the discussions “prolonged.”

Iqbal did not say which among the issues tackled were “tough” but according to the joint statement, the MILF presented the results of the consultations it conducted from January 25 to February 5 “and discussed issues related to Commander Ustadz Ameril Umbra Kato.”

The Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GPH) , on the other hand “discussed the government’s “positive actions on the cases of 25 individuals claimed by the MILF to be political detainees.”

The government sent a delegation of 17, the MILF sent nine. Iqbal said only nine members of the GPH delegation were allowed to attend the sessions while all members of the International Contact Group (ICG) were present.

The ICG, created in the aftermath of the aborted signing of the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD) and mandated to “exert the necessary leverage and assistance towards sustaining the trust and confidence of both sides at the negotiating table,” is composed of member-states Turkey, Japan, United Kingdom and Saudi Arabia; and international non-government organizations, namely, Center for Humanitarian Dialogue, Muhammadiyah, The Asia Foundation and Conciliation Resources.

Leonen’s staff has yet to send a copy of his opening statement. The website of the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process has not uploaded his statement but a press statement dated February 10, quoted him as having said “we have come to work with you to bring peace, not just aspire for it,” and that there is a need to address social and historical injustice to bring a comprehensive and lasting peace in Mindanao.

The press statement also quoted Leonen as saying the GPH panel “formalized its concern on the case of Commander Ustadz Ameril  Umbra Kato and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) as well as its implication to the ceasefire and security situation on the ground.”

In his opening statement, titled “Every step brings us closer to our destination,” Iqbal said they are “fully aware of the situation in the field and the presence of so many powerful and well-entrenched spoilers of the peace process both in Manila and Mindanao.”

He admitted that the MILF has problems and Kato “is one of those problems” but added that the MILF leadership is “still hopeful that we can manage and solve this problem; otherwise, we will tell the government, the facilitator, and the international community that he has already burned his bridges with the MILF,  he is not one of us, he is not with the MILF.”

“To be frank with all of you here, Kato is indeed a problem,” said Iqbal. But he added: “if we are truthful to ourselves and to the facts surrounding why he had been a problem is because of the betrayal of the previous administration (not its peace panel) in not signing the Memorandum of Agreement of Ancestral Domain on August 5, 2008.“

He said Kato is “one of our commanders who (does) not believe in negotiation, but we managed to let him toe the line for so long, until the present Philippine dispensation came into power. Ramadan passed, the month of October passed, November passed, December passed, but it was only on January 13 when the two peace panels finally met (for informal talks; no joint statement was issued but an agreement was made on the February 9 and 10 formal exploratory talks – ed).”

“This is not blaming anyone, but I am just highlighting here that these delays are giving him more ammunition to prove his thesis that he is right, that negotiation is useless, because the government is not sincere. It is very difficult to argue with those who in the first place take an opposite view right at the start,” he said.

Iqbal in his opening statement at the informal talks on January 13 said, “frankly, if we conduct this negotiation as real problem-solving exercise, we would not spend three years into it. That is too long to spare on something whose main formula does not include option to secede, as what was provided for in the Machakus Agreement in South Sudan.”

“Six months up to one year timeline is enough to complete the process. But if the exercise is just to manage the conflict in Mindanao, as most if not all previous administrations did, the six-year term of office of President Benigno Aquino II  will not be enough. There will always be reasons to obstruct the negotiations, as there are people who prefer the war option to solve the problem in Mindanao.”

MILF chair Al Haj Murad Ebrahim told a press conference in conference in Camp Darapanan,  Sultan Kudarat, Maguindanao on February 5 that he was “optimistic that in a short time, we can come out with the proper political formula from the negotiating table. We can have the beginning of a just peace in the Bangsamoro Homeland in our time and generation.”

Two days later, at the UP College of Law in Quezon City where he is also Dean, Leonen told a press conference that  if the MILF “remains sincere and is open to being pragmatic but at the same time principled in their stance, one year is a reasonable period to come to a fundamental agreement on a politically negotiated settlement. We are cautious, however, not to state deadlines in terms of periods of number of meetings. The realities of political negotiations and unforeseen events should allow the negotiating parties some room to adjust and accommodate.”

On Umbra Kato, Leonen said they “have been aware” of his actions and his effort to organize the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF).

“The possibility of their existence was known to our police and military forces. They have kept their usual state of defensive readiness. We have monitored this development for the past months and raised this as a concern with the MILF panel during our informal talks. We agreed that we will be given a full report of the relationship of Commander Ameril Umbra Kato and his armed following during this week’s meeting.”

He said the government panel is “of course seriously concerned with this development and the announcements made by MILF chair Al Haj Murad Ebrahim. However, we would rather get clarification from their official representatives before we state our official position on this matter.”

“If true, the existence of a separate armed group that splinters from the MILF will endanger our ceasefire mechanisms. It will also make our civilian populations insecure and vulnerable. It will be irresponsible on the part of our police and military forces not to take a higher state of readiness should this be the case. Also, the separate existence of another armed group espousing the same grievances, if true, may significantly put in question the ability of the current leadership of the MILF to deliver on any commitment that is negotiated with the government.”

Leonen said insurgent movements “will always be represented by dynamic organizations. As movements or organizations mature, there will be conflicts that need to be debated within. These debates can either lead to a more mature leadership in touch with its constituencies or it can lead to more dogmatic outcomes. While this process unfolds, making baseless conclusions that do nothing but raise hysteria can be deadly for many of our people on the ground.”

He appealed to the media to “help us clarify these nuances. Contextualize the drama, please do not just report it.”

“Suffice it to say, we are negotiating for a comprehensive political settlement within the soonest possible tiem. Implied in this desire is the understanding that both parties can deliver a just and lasting peace. But this does not only entail work by our panels, it also requires some support from all of us. Let us do peace and in doing so take the difficult, if not mature, steps towards it,” he said. (Carolyn O. Arguillas/MindaNews)

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