KUALA LUMPUR (MindaNews/14 February) – The Philippine government and Moro Islamic Libeation Front (MILF) peace panels resumed negotiations here at the Penang Room of the Sheraton Imperial Hotel Monday, with only 47 days left to the end of March, the government’s “within the first quarter” target to sign a peace accord.
Tuesday’s continuation of the three-day talks — the 25th exploratory talks since the 2003 war but only the sixth formal negotiations under the 20-month old Aquino administration — leaves the two panels only 46 days to reach an agreement or what would likely be a series of agreements leading up to the final comprehensive settlement.
Early last year, the two panel chairs said one year was a “reasonable time frame” to sign an agreement. It has been one year since.
“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…. Six months up to one year timeline is enough to complete the process,” MILF peace panel chair Mohagher Iqbal said in his opening statement during the informal talks on January 13 last year.
On February 7 last year, government peace panel hair Dean Marvic Leonen noted 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,” Leonen said.
Monday’s opening statements saw both panel chairs cautiously choosing their words on the run-up to the end of the first quarter, in contrast to last month’s optimistic tone.
“The sooner, the better”
“We propose that in this round of talks, we focus once more on the substantive issues and explore common grounds. We acknowledge that the issues that we tackle now are the more difficult ones but we are optimistic that we can find mutually viable solutions. Let us redouble our efforts to conclude these negotiations in the soonest possible time. The sooner, the better,” Leonen said last Monday.
In his opening statement on January 9 at the 5th round of formal talks under the Aquino administration, Leonen said, “We should both meet the challenge of crafting an agreement soon enough, so that it could be implemented and then assessed and then adjusted before the next term of the next President of the Republic.”
“In our reckoning, the golden opportunity to craft such an agreement is this first quarter of this year. Our standing instructions from our President are to work earnestly and with due and deliberate dispatch careful to consult all constituents that we also represent along the way. We think that this is possible. Share with us this vision. Within this first quarter, let us attempt to craft an agreement,” he said.
In August, President Aquino and MILF chair Al Haj Murad Ebrahim met in a hotel near the Narita airport in Japan and agreed to fast-track the negotiations so a peace agreement can be signed as soon as possible. The two leaders hoped that implementation can be done within Aquinos term and not passed on to the next administration.
President Aquino steps down on June 30, 2016.
The two panels are working on an agreement that would provide for real autonomy unlike the present Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) which has been criticized as autonomous in name only.
The ARMM was supposed to vote its new set of officials on August 8, 2011 but Congress postponed the election to synchronize it with the May 13, 2013 national mid-term polls. It also authorized the President to appoint OICs to govern the ARMM until a new set of officials shall have been elected in 2013.
The President named a former buddy in the House of Representatives, Mujiv Hataman, as his OIC ARMM Governor. Hataman assumed the post on Deccember 22, 2011.
Unless a new entity replaces the ARMM, the 45-day campaign period for candidates in the already postponed ARMM elections in May 2013, begins on March 27, 2013.
In his opening statement on Monday, MILF peace panel chair Mohagher Iqbal acknowledged the panels are “treading the most difficult phase of the 15-year old GPH-MILF peace negotiation.”
“We are now dealing with the core of the Moro Question and the armed conflict in Mindanao, which is the issue of genuine self-governance for our people. It is for this reason that we now experience numerous problems along our path. If we are not engaged in real problem-solving negotiation, then we will end up without signing the comprehensive compact soon or at any time during the Aquino administration,” he said.
Iqbal said all the issues have been laid on the table. He cited the issues on power-sharing, wealth-sharing, territory, and interim period.
“We must tighten our belt and continue to deal with these issues head-on, bearing in the mind that time is running out, if we are to take into consideration the view of the GPH that the comprehensive compact has to be signed next month,” he said.
Iqbal asked the government peace panel to “consider seriously from now on putting all these agreed points including the 11-point formulation” in December 2011 “into formal documents and sign them, so we can tell ourselves that indeed we have achieved something and we are moving forward.”
“We have also concrete proof to show to our people and the international community that indeed the two parties are serious and are producing results and not just talk, talk, and talk. More importantly, these papers will also form part of the official documents of the GPH-MILF peace negotiation that we can bank and guide us on as we go into the details of the various issues of the negotiation,” he said.
The 11-point formulation has not been made public by both panels but Iqbal gave a hint on what it contains in his opening statement on January 9.
He said, “perhaps the only compliment that we can be happy for the moment was our agreement on the 11-point basic issues and concerns last December 5-7 during our 23rd GPH-MILF Exploratory Talks that included ‘autonomy’ as the form of self-governance that we intend to put into place in the future Moro state or substate.”
“Why is this important? Because, it puts into definitive and clear term that in this negotiation we are not talking about a sham autonomy like the present Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao with all its integrative features but something short of an independent state. The moment we focus on this form of self-governance, given the abundance of models in the world today, like Scotland, Hong Kong, The Aland Islands, and Puerto Rico, we can expect swift development in the talks. And then the March deadline is possible.” (Carolyn O. Arguillas/MindaNews)