Leonen:“I would rather that the proposals be different: honestly different”

KUALA LUMPUR (MindaNews/22 August) –  The government’s proposed peace settlement with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) is still a “work in progress” and  presents a different approach with the MILF’s  “but in keeping with our past agreement – is more in keeping with” MILF chair Al Haj Murad Ebrahim’s “problem-solving approach,” government peace panel chair Marvic Leonen said.

In his statement at the opening session held behind closed doors at the Executive Boardroom of the Royale Chulan Hotel here, Leonen said observers of the GPH-MILF peace process are likely hoping that government’s approach “hews close” to the MILF’s peace proposal and may even be “ready to judge government’s ‘sincerity’ on the basis of how close its language or content will be to that of the proposals of the MILF.”

“I would rather that the proposals be different: honestly different. Better if the frameworks that inform the proposals be different: honestly different.  It is only then that the issues that truly matter to both sides can be given more space at this negotiating table,” he said. (See related story)

He said it is important not to lose sight of “our common ground and draw inspiration from there, but our role as negotiators require that we clearly articulate the differences of our principals and constituencies” and having articulated them, “we then should proceed to examine the reality as well as the viability of logical inferences that we make from our versions of reality.  Hopefully, in this conversation, we can discover how things really are and work to find implementable agreements.”

Copies of Leonen’s statement were not made available. The communications team of the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (OPAPP) here said they could not release copies until authorized by Leonen. The statement was posted on the website of  OPAPP at 7:38 p.m. or seven hours after the opening session ended.

Leonen said the field of “possible points of agreement can expand when we make sure that our discussions cover the various points that many of our constituencies may currently cherish.”

“It is after all, the people, later on, who will eventually place the final decision as to whatever agreements that we can agree upon.  It is in this sense that I would say, that a proposal from government which presents a different approach – but in keeping with our past agreement — is more in keeping with what the honorable chair of the MILF Al Haj Murad Ebrahim referred to as the ‘problem solving’ approach,” he said.

Leonen acknowledged that their patience as negotiators will be tested but patience and the openness to consider each other’s point of view “may be  the bedrock of building a true consensus.”

“We never promised that our negotiations be easy or simple; we do however guarantee that it is sincere and earnest.  We intend these negotiations to be fast tracked, but never at the expense of being truly analytical,” he said.

He said the government’s proposal considered “a lot of views.”

Leonen also noted that the government and MILF panels are negotiating “under imperfect conditions,” citing a total of 17 rido-related incidents involving at least a commander of the MILF base command since January 1.

Since January 1,  the  GPH and MILF  Coordinating Committees on the Cessation of Hostilities (CCCH)  have recorded not a single incident between government and MILF forces but several incidents between MILF commanders and between the MILF and former MILF commander Ustadz Amiril Umra Kato’s Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF).

He cited the recent rido between some members of the MILF’s 105th base command and some members of the 104th base command, in Palimbang, Sultan Kudarat which displaced  1,596 families from six barangays.

“In these evacuation centers, four children died.  A woman gave birth to twins.  One unfortunately died due to conditions in the center. Another child died because the mother failed to pay attention to him as she was busily preparing evacuation.  Another drowned due to similar reasons. The last child died as a result of miserable conditions aggravating a pre-existing illness.  This is apart from 12 casualties and 12 wounded from the direct fighting,” Leonen said.

He also mentioned the fighting early this month between members of the 106th base command and the group of Kato in Datu Piang, Maguindanao. “What started out as a land conflict seems to have graduated to a full scale offensive between their troops, causing major concern among our own ground forces.”

The fighting left 14 dead and 695 families displaced. When MindaNews visited Datu Piang Wednesday afternoon last week, only a few families had been left behind in the evacuation center at the  Datu Gumbay elementary school.

“These conflicts and obvious lack of discipline among some of the MILF troops cannot certainly be attributed to the Government of the Republic of the Philippines.  Certainly, it weakens your position in relation to our principals and to the public at large.  We have mechanisms for the cessation of hostilities between our troops.  For the most part we have kept our side tranquil.  Should there not be also cessation of hostilities internal to the MILF?  The increasing vulnerability to rido between and among troops is indeed becoming an increasing concern on the part of the GPH.  We hope that this too is addressed at some points during our formal negotiations,” said Leonen.

The government peace panel has been asked to “specifically request confirmation of what our ground forces are seeing in relation to Ustadz Ameril Umra Kato: that he is no longer within the command and control of the MILF.”

“Not only has he attempted to reinforce weakened positions of some of his commanders who were clearly engaged in kidnapping, not only did he fire at AFP armaments, he has also attacked your commanders and, as per our report, made it possible for his men to do barbaric and inhuman acts to four combatants who were already hors’ d combat.  In an interview with Newsbreak and GMA 7, he has publicly accused the MILF Central Committee of tolerating kidnapping and other criminal acts.  By the way, his released videos also show that his camp has child soldiers.”

“We cannot accept that he is still part of the MILF.  We need to be clear about the status of forces on the ground.  If he is truly a splinter group, then we would have to assess the situation together in a very serious and sensitive manner,” Leonen added.

MILF peace panel chair Mohagher Iqbal in his opening statement said the MILF Central Committee has issued a resolution that took effect August 18 after MILF chair Murad signed it, declaring Kato and his men “bughaat,” an Arabic term meaning “one who defies or who does not obey a lawful order of a ruler or duly mandated authority” and are no longer members of the MILF “unless they cease and desist without delay their anti-MILF campaigns.”

But Iqbal also acknowledged that that a “new twist in Kato’s case had developed very swiftly” in that Kato has “formally split from the MILF and formed a new organization called Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Front (BIFF).”

“As a consequence, the MILF Central Committee has to revisit the Resolution. How it deals with this new situation is not in the domain of the MILF peace panel to know at the moment. As far as we are concerned, the decision contained in the resolution cited above is all what we can officially transmit to our good counterpart from the GPH,” he said.

Leonen said the two panels “need to cooperate with each other to settle ground conditions” as he also noted that their last two meetings were “greeted with explosions of IEDs (improvised explosive devices)  in Mindanao.

“The solutions therefore that we seek at this table should address the present as well as the future. Poverty, hunger, powerlessness, insecurity and injustice are also present realities which cry out for present solutions that work.  We should keep always an eye on them as we look for more systemic solutions.  In our presentation, we have a way forward as our people deserve nothing less,” he said.

Leonen, early in his speech, recalled that the August 4 meeting between President Aquino and MILF chair Murad,  “underscored the reality that although the approaches of our respective principals may currently be different, peace is still realizable within the next year.  That is, if we are willing to work with patience and with a lot of understanding.”

“Both agreed that as a matter of principle, we would have to confirm agreements based on the consent of the governed,” he said, adding that the President and Murad also saw that “any political re-arrangement initially still requires an effective national government empowered not only to assist underdeveloped regions but also to ensure the viability of the entire Republic as one whole,”  he said. (Carolyn O. Arguillas/MindaNews)