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    Southeast Asia
     Jan 28, 2011


Giving peace another chance in Mindanao
By Bong S Sarmiento

MINDANAO, Philippines - The negotiating panels of the Philippine government and rebel Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) are set to resume formal peace talks on February 9 and 10 in Malaysia after an over-two-year hiatus. The new talks will put President Benigno Aquino's rhetoric of peace and reconciliation to a mediation test and could hold the key to future stability in the country's war-wracked southern region.

To be sure, both sides have signaled a genuine desire to restart the stalled talks aimed at achieving an elusive final peace deal. The decades-old conflict has claimed more than 120,000 lives



and severely stunted the economic development of the country's second-largest and most resource-rich island. The peace process, first commenced in 1997 under former president Fidel Ramos, has now stretched out futilely over three administrations.

In his inaugural address on June 30, Aquino said his administration is "committed to a peaceful and just settlement of conflicts, inclusive of the interest of all - may they be indigenous peoples, Bangsamoro or Christians." ;

He reiterated that policy during his first State of the Nation Address last July, when he announced the MILF peace talks would resume soon after Ramadan.

Aquino's failure to immediately resume the talks did not trigger a violent response from the Moro rebels thanks to the mediating presence of the multinational International Monitoring Team (IMT) headed by Malaysia. The IMT's military contingent includes Brunei and Libya, while the European Union, Japan and Norway oversee issues related to development, rehabilitation, humanitarianism and security.

Previous broken commitments have stoked violence. Peace talks were effectively suspended in August 2008 after a so-called Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD) was annulled before it was implemented due to a controversial Supreme Court verdict. The decision robbed the MILF of promised political and economic powers in areas the group considers its ancestral homeland and sparked new armed hostilities that uprooted hundreds of thousands of civilians from their communities.

According to an April 2009 report of the Geneva-based Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, over 600,000 residents of Mindanao were internally displaced in 2008 due to renewed skirmishes between government and MILF forces. It ranked the human movement as "the biggest new displacement in the world" in 2008.

Over 30 months will have passed between the aborted signing of the MOA-AD to next month's resumption of formal peace talks. Among the major sticking points in the peace process, the ancestral-domain aspect was seen as the last hurdle towards a comprehensive political settlement of the conflict. The other two aspects - that of security and rehabilitation and development - were ironed out years ago through negotiations.

Some peace advocates see reason for hope with the transition from outgoing president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to Aquino. The government and MILF peace panels met informally in Kuala Lumpur on January 13, where both sides agreed to resume the negotiations. The two sides concluded their scheduled 12-hour meeting in just nine hours, indicating a minor breakthrough to some observers.

"The early accomplishment of all the agenda items suggests that there was a lot of consensus on most of the items, and the atmosphere was cordial but resolute and candid," said Marvic Leonen, the government's chief peace negotiator, in a January 14 statement after the meeting. The informal meeting in Kuala Lumpur, he said, confirmed the government's "commitment to the peace negotiations".

Other highlights of the meeting included joint motions to extend the mandates of the IMT and the Ad Hoc Joint Action Group, a composite team of government and MILF members tasked to "isolate and interdict kidnap-for-ransom groups and other criminal syndicates operating in the bailiwick of Moro rebels".

They also agreed to the issuance of identification cards as a security guarantee to those MILF members who are directly involved in the peace negotiations. As an apparent gesture of good will, the government committed to reviewing the cases of 25 MILF members currently held in detention centers.

Earlier controversy over the Malaysian facilitator of the peace talks, Datuk Othman bin Abd Razak, was also ironed out. The government's peace panel had earlier appealed to Malaysia to replace Othman due to his alleged bias in favor of the MILF. MILF representatives strongly objected to his proposed dismissal and requested Kuala Lumpur to retain Othman in his role.

Othman facilitated the January 13 meeting and there are no indications that he will be replaced when the amity talks resume next month in Malaysia. Mohagher Iqbal, the MILF's chief peace negotiator, declined to elaborate on how the facilitator issue was resolved, noting only that it was a "sensitive matter".

"It's inclusive and fair to all - the Philippine government, MILF and Malaysia," he told ATol over the phone.

The government and MILF have so far signed at least 87 documents of varying importance towards achieving a political settlement to the conflict. To fast-track the process, the talks will resume where they ended under the Arroyo regime and not return to square one, as some analysts and observers had speculated.

That stopping point and a consensus on an interim agreement towards a "comprehensive compact" was incorporated in a June 3, 2010 document entitled "Declaration of Continuity for Peace Negotiations between Government of the Republic of the Philippines and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front." It's still unclear, however, how the two sides will approach the pivotal ancestral domain issue that was outlined in the court-annulled MOA-AD.

"We do not intend to start from scratch," said government negotiator Leonen. "To even imply that we have even considered this possibility is to underestimate the political sense and historical understanding of the negotiators that have already been named and of this entire [Aquino] administration.

"Our marching orders are to move forward and to move forward with due deliberation and sincerity."

MILF negotiator Iqbal said that as part of their informal talks earlier this month in Kuala Lumpur, it was agreed that the actual peace talks would in fact resume with the "comprehensive compact" peace agreement forming part of the discussion.

For his part, Al Haj Murad Ebrahim, the MILF chieftain who once served as the rebel group's chief peace negotiator, said he was eager to see the peace process moving again. "For the MILF, the only way in the peace process is forward in order to complete the peace talks," said Murad.

At a press conference with the country's foreign correspondents at a rebel stronghold in Maguindanao province last year, Murad said the MILF and the Arroyo government, then in the twilight of its term, tried but failed to reach a deal because their respective positions were "heaven and earth" apart after exchanging draft proposals.

The main thrust of the MILF draft, according to Murad, was for the establishment of a state-and-sub-state arrangement of governance in a future Bangsamoro state, where the state would refer to the Philippines and the sub-state to a Moro-ruled entity. With the resumption of negotiations drawing near, Iqbal said: "We are not dropping our bid for independence. We are determined to pursue our right to self-determination."

Arroyo's draft, on the other hand, repeated government offers from 2000 and 2003 to grant enhanced autonomy for the Moros under the construct of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), currently one of the poorest areas in the Philippines. It's an arrangement the MILF viewed as a non-starter because it assumes the ARMM is part of Philippine territory. Therein lies the challenge to Aquino's promise of peace and reconciliation.

Bong S Sarmiento is a reporter at MindaNews, a Mindanao-based daily online news outfit, and a correspondent of BusinessWorld, a national daily broadsheet in the Philippines. He is a native of Mindanao.

(Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


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