Gov’t, MILF hope for a breakthrough

Angela Casauay
The government and the MILF resume talks in Kuala Lumpur over the contentious issues of wealth and power sharing

MOVING FORWARD. Members of the government peace panel chat with members of the International Contact Group before the start of the 38th round of formal talks in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Photo by Rappler

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – A day before the start of Ramadan, the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) on Monday, July 8, resumed negotiations here, hoping to come a step closer to a much-awaited peace agreement. 

Minutes before their formal meeting, MILF chief negotiator Mohagher Iqbal told Rappler the MILF is returning to the negotiating table with guarded optimism, as both sides attempt to resolve the deadlock on critical issues regarding wealth-sharing and power-sharing. 

“The fact that we are here shows we are committed but the issues are really tough,” Iqbal said. “But as long as both sides focus on problem-solving, we should be able to arrive at something.”

Top of the agenda is to complete the wealth-sharing annex, one of the 4 annexes needed to complete the comprehensive agreement on the Bangsamoro. It details how wealth from taxes, block grants, and proceeds from natural resources would be shared between the envisioned Bangsamoro political entity and the national government. 

The MILF has been waging war for more than 3 decades now, a situation that has discouraged investments and thwarted development in central Mindanao, which is their stronghold. The older Moro National Liberation Front signed a peace deal more than a decade ago with the Ramos administration, but the MILF is more ambitious in its goal of creating a more autonomous and self-sustaining regional government in Mindanao.

On the eve of the talks, fresh clashes erupted between government forces and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), an MILF splinter group. The BIFF is opposed to how the MILF has been holding the negotiations with the government.

Iqbal said the conflict should have no direct effect on the talks. “But indirectly, these are possible spoilers on the ground, who are trying to derail the peace process,” he said. 

It is not only the “spoilers” who are sounding the alarm about the urgency to finish the talks. On the ground, there is a clamor to finish the talks as soon as possible 

Miriam Coronel-Ferrer, head of the government’s chief negotiator describes the first day’s proceedings. Watch the full interview below.


Beyond status quo

Earlier, the MILF expressed “frustration” over the deadlock on the wealth-sharing annex, which had been “initialed” by both parties as early as February.

READ: MILF on stalled talks: ‘Angry, frustated’

But a month later, Iqbal told Rappler they were expecting this to happen anyway as both sides reach the final stages of the negotiations. “We already expected that because this is the heart of autonomy,” Iqbal said. “In order to have real autonomy, there must be power-sharing. In order to have fiscal autonomy, there must be wealth-sharing.” 

The talks achieved a minor breakthrough when government peace panel chair Miriam Coronel-Ferrer, along with Peace Adviser Secretary Teresita Deles, met informally with Iqbal and other MILF peace panel members in Oslo, Norway, in June for the peace negotiators’ forum. It was where Ferrer turned over the government’s wealth-sharing proposal — the latest after the MILF accused the government of backtracking “twice” on the initial wealth-sharing agreement.   

After both sides arrived at an initial wealth-sharing annex in February, the MILF thought the government would only conduct a “cursory review” of the initial annex. After all, it is part of protocol to return any document to their principals before signing. But when they returned to the negotiating table in April, the government proposed changes, which the MILF said diluted the essence of the annex. 

A report from the Philippine Daily Inquirer said the MILF wants a 75-25% wealth-sharing across the board, which is higher than what the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao currently enjoys. The MILF is adamant that the final peace agreement that will come out of these talks must offer more than the status quo. 

The government however says there is a formula to be followed in computing wealth-sharing based on taxes, block grants, and natural resources. 

Of the 4 annexes needed to complete the final peace pact, only the annex on transition arrangements and modalities has been signed. Aside from the wealth-sharing annex, the annexes on power-sharing and normalization, which include the tough isssues on policing and decommissioning, have yet to be completed. 

For this round of talks, only the annex on normalization is at the level of the technical working groups. 

“We should finish what can be finished,” Iqbal said. “It is also in the interest of the government to settle this as soon as possible.”

NEGOTIATIONS. Where the talks are being held in Kuala Lumpur.

Haunted by the past

The MILF has repeatedly warned that any further delay in the signing of the final peace pact raises the risk of violence in Mindanao – and even the government agrees this round of talks presents a make-or-break scenario. 

“It’s important in the sense [that] this is [where we are] eager, anxious to come to terms with issues,” government panel’s Coronel-Ferrer said in an earlier interview with Rappler’s #TalkThursday

Despite increasing pressure on the ground, what has prevented the government from simply giving in to the MILF’s demands? 

It’s the trauma over the botched Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD).  

Before the administration of then president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and the MILF could even sign the MOA-AD in 2008, the Supreme Court declared the deal as unconstitutional, describing the document as “whimsical, capricious, oppressive, arbitrary and despotic.” 

Just days after the verdict, armed clashes – led by what MILF leaders said were field commanders impatient with the delay in the MOA-AD implementation – occurred in North Cotabato, Lanao del Norte, and Sarangani, displacing nearly 750,000 people and leaving about 400 dead. 

This time around, the government and MILF peace panels are under pressure to find a compromise acceptable to key sectors. They’re racing against time – with only 3 years left from their timeline for the transition toward the new Bangsamoro political entity. 

As President Benigno Aquino III prepares for his next State of the Nation Address before the 16th Congress on July 22, the nation awaits whether he would talk about a significant breakthrough in the peace process.

In an earlier interview, Iqbal said, “There is no more reason for both parties not to overcome obstacles.” Rappler.com

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