MILF returns to the negotiating table

The government peace panel is aiming for 'good compromises,' noting that both sides are bogged down by details and 'missing the forest'

CRUNCH TIME. (From left) MILF chief negotiator Mohagher Iqbal, Malaysian facilitator  Tengku Datuk Abdul Ghafar Tengku Mohamed, government peace panel member Senen Bacani and MILF peace panel member Maulana Alonto. File photo by Rappler

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – Will they finally arrive at a compromise this time around?

After ending Thursday’s talks without signing any documents, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) agreed to return to the negotiating table with the government on Friday, July 12.

Once more, the two parties will attempt to seal the deal on wealth sharing between the envisioned Bangsamoro political entity and the national government. 

July 11 was supposed to be the last day of the 38th round of formal negotiations. After discussions ended without any resolution, MILF chief negotiator Mohagher Iqbal said there was “limited chance” they were returning on Friday after 4 days of “fruitless talk.”

READ: No deal in KL – MILF 

But the government managed to persuade the MILF to extend this round of negotiations for one more day, as both sides race against time to reach a compromise and sign the annex on wealth sharing. This is one of the annexes needed to complement the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro before the comprehensive compact is signed. 

“We have extended the talks up to today,” said government peace panel head Miriam Coronel-Ferrer. “We still need to find good compromises on key issues like taxation and revenue share. We seem to be caught up in the trees and missing the forest,” she added.

Ferrer said she hopes “we will find solutions,” but acknowledged “we need flexibility on both sides.” She stressed that the Aquino govermment “remains invested in the process.”

Members of both panels arrived at the venue of the talks shortly past 9 am.

For the last 4 months, the two sides have been caught in a deadlock over how to share resources with the proposed Bangsamoro region.

READ: Gov’t MILF hope for breakthrough

READ: MILF on stalled talks: ‘Frustrated, angry’

An agreement on wealth sharing would advance the negotiations since the details of the remaining annexes on power sharing and normalization depend partly on its resolution. 

In an apparent effort to achieve a breakthrough, President Benigno Aquino III sent Presidential Spokesperson Edwin Lacierda, along with Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process Secretary Teresita Deles, to Kuala Lumpur to “relay a message” to the MILF.

Lacierda and Deles are still here, awaiting further developments. 

Contentious issues

What is holding both sides from signing the annex on wealth sharing?

In February, the government and the MILF “initialled” a draft of the wealth-sharing annex that would be presented to their respective principals for approval. At that time, the MILF thought the annex was practically a done deal and the government would only conduct a “cursory review” of the documents. 

But the government refused to sign the document for the succeeding talks in March and April, citing the need for “due dilligence.” 

The government finally turned over its proposal to the MILF in June when the peace panels met in Oslo, Norway, for a peace negotiators’ forum. But the MILF has been adamant it will stick to the initial annex drafted in February. 

There is a nuanced formula as to computations on how wealth will be shared between the Bangsamoro and the central government, based on taxes, block grants, and natural resources. 

But sources said the most contentious issue has to do with wealth-sharing arrangements on natural resources. 

In the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, the government splits profits from natural resources 50-50. For other local government units, the ratio is 60-40, in favor of the national government.

Sources told Rappler the government wants a 50-50 wealth-sharing arrangement for revenues from fossil fuels, gas, and oil. It was also the baseline agreed upon by Aquino and MILF chairman Al Haj Murad Ebrahim during their impromptu meeting in Tokyo in 2011.

“But it was clear the President said we will start ‘from’ 50-50,” a ranking leader of the MILF said. “He did not say we will stay at 50-50.”

The MILF, for its part, is pushing for a 75-25 share on natural resources – in favor of the Bangsamoro – arguing that to achieve true fiscal autonomy, the final peace pact must present solutions greater than what the ARMM already enjoys. 

Race against time

Both parties are under pressure to arrive at an agreement on this annex given their 3-year timeframe. Before the eventual transition to the Bangsamoro regional government when Aquino steps down from office in 2016, a new law has to be drafted, passed by Congress, and approved in a plebiscite. 

According to Iqbal, there is growing tension on the ground, not just from within their own ranks but also from supposed spoilers who want the talks to fail. 

Days before the resumption of talks breakaway troops launched a series of attacks in central Mindanao, showing their opposition to the peace process.

The talks aim to end nearly 4 decades of Muslim rebellion in Mindanao. – Rappler.com

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