Inside story: The deal breaker in GPH-MILF talks

In Kuala Lumpur, tension rises between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front during crucial peace talks

NO ENTRY. The entrance to the main venue of the GPH-MILF talks are always guarded.

MANILA, Philippines – After 6 “tense” and “rigorous” days on the negotiating table, the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) arrived at the final hours of negotiations in Kuala Lumpur.

Talks had already reached a deadlock twice in this particular round of negotiations. The panels had no plans of extending it one more time. They were anxious and tired. Back in Manila, President Benigno Aquino III monitored developments through “concerned secretaries.”

He only had one question for the panels: “What’s the deal breaker?”

Flashback

It’s Thursday, July 11, the supposed last day of the peace talks between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in Kuala Lumpur, and the 2nd day of Ramadan.  

There’s tension in the air. It’s been there since Day One of this round of talks. On the table are the most contentious issues that have stalled negotiations for about 5 months — wealth-sharing arrangements between the envisioned Bangsamoro political entity and the central government, particularly on 3 items: taxation, annual automatic appropriations, and natural resources. 

By the time members of the government peace panel arrive, members of the MILF are already inside, arriving early as they always do. They are billeted just nearby, while the government team embarks on a daily 30-minute travel to the venue from the city center. 

Only those directly involved in the talks are allowed inside the main venue. Even some members of the secretariat from the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process are prohibited from entering the room. They set up an office in the lobby instead, complete with printers, scanners and computers.

No one can sneak in — there are at least two security guards in the hallway at any given time to ensure that no unwanted person can come in. 

SUPPORT TEAM. Some staff members of the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process serve as the talks' secretariat.

Once panel members are inside, much of the proceedings become largely confidential. It is up to the chairs and the members of both sides to disclose developments in the talks but all documents completed and signed are released to the public. 

An hour after session starts, presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda, along with Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process Secretary Teresita Deles, arrive at the venue. 

Palace emissary

In 3 years of talks with the MILF under the Aquino administration, it’s the first time a Palace official is being sent to Kuala Lumpur for the negotiations. 

Deles’ presence is understandable. Her department, after all, oversees the talks. But what is Lacierda doing here?

A government source in touch with both peace panels says Lacierda has been on board from Day 1 of the peace process under the MILF, even when Associate Justice Marvic Leonen was still the government peace panel chair.

Lacierda is not only familiar with the details of talks — he is said to know how to relay crucial messages to the President.

There’s no denying the talks had reached such a crucial stage. (In a later press conference in Malacañang, Deles tells members of the press not to be surprised anymore if she and Lacierda once again attend the next round of talks.)

They aren’t the only government officials scheduled to fly to Kuala Lumpur. Some senators, led by incoming Senate President Franklin Drilon, were also set to grace the signing of the annex. (Days after, Deles tells reporters the senators ended up cancelling their trip after the talks were extended twice.)

In a separate room from the main venue of the talks, Deles and Lacierda hold a caucus with the government team, led by peace panel chair Miriam Coronel-Ferrer. 

Two members of the MILF — chief negotiator Mohagher Iqbal and panel member Maulanto Alonto — along with Malaysian facilitator Tengku Datuk Abdul Ghafar Tengku Mohamed follow afterwards. The meeting lasts for about 10 minutes. 

Closed doors

All formal talks between the government and the MILF are held behind closed doors — a decision both sides agreed on at the start of the talks — for a reason. 

Steven Rood, The Asia Foundation’s country representative to the Philippines, explains why. 

“Peace talks around the world are very often totally confidential because inside, people need to be searching for common ground, whereas outside, we need to be representing particular institutions or constituencies,” Rood says. “If you are bound to that representation functions, sometimes it hinders the search for common ground.” 

The Asia Foundation is a member of the International Contact Group but is now transitioning towards the Third Party Monitoring Team (TPMT) after Rood’s appointment to the TPMT. 

He adds: “It’s a very delicate balancing act, looking for confidentiality and common ground, and at the same time you need to have publicity and represent your constituency.”  

INFORMAL. Members of the Third Party Monitoring Team chat with members of the International Contact Group in between breaks.

It used to be that panel members from both sides could only interact through the Malaysian facilitator, based on the protocols. Since the signing of the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro, the atmosphere has changed.

In between breaks, members of the technical working group on the normalization annex, which discusses decommissioning and policing, talk to each other freely in the common area outside the rooms. 

Both sides had initially agreed on a half-day schedule for the talks as soon as Ramadhan started on Wednesday. This never happened. 

On Thursday afternoon, despite the presence of Deles and Lacierda, the day ends without any signed agreement. Tired and preparing to break their fast, the MILF team leaves the venue of the talks in a huff. Contrary to reports back in the Philippines, there is no walk-out (members of the panel themselves later on deny this as well). 

The MILF pins the blame on the government. MILF chief negotiator Mohagher Iqbal says the government peace panel is “too rigid as if their mandate is cast in stone,” warning that there is “limited chance” they are returning to the negotiating table. Ferrer admits they are still trying to convince the MILF to extend the talks until Friday.  

‘No other option’

Without a resolution, the government team reassembles in their hotel in the city. After dinner, they discuss what to do next. Late Friday night, sources say the government decides to reach out to the MILF through the Malaysian facilitator. In a bid to convince the MILF to come back, Deles meets Tengku at the Palace of the Golden Horses.

A government source says the MILF is “too invested in the process” that they have to make sure it succeeds.

After the talks end on Wednesday, Iqbal also says this much: “There is no other option. The only option is through the peace talks.”

Thus, the MILF agrees to return to the negotiating table. By midnight, the MILF notifies the government of their decision. 

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.

Rescheduled flights

On Friday, the holiest day for Muslims, the government team, for the first time in this round of talks, arrives earlier than the MILF. Session starts at about half past 9 in the morning. 

The government team of about 15 is scheduled to fly back to Manila at 5 pm. Meanwhile, members of the governent’s technical working group on normalization has flown back a day earlier.  

At about 3 pm, it becomes apparent the annex would not be completed before 5 pm. OPAPP makes the decision to send their staff home, along with peace panel members Chito Gascon and Mehol Sadain. Lacierda flies back with them due to a prior commitment.

Meanwhile, Ferrer and the rest of the panel, as well as two other team members book tickets for Saturday, 1 am. Ferrer says they could not rebook their 5 pm. ticket any more since they had already checked in online the night before the start of Friday’s session, anticipating a last-minute rush to the airport. 

With the MILF team still intact, only Ferrer, Deles, panel members Yasmin Busran-Lao and Senen Bacani, lawyer Armi Bayot and some staff members, are left behind on the government side. 

Still, no annex is signed. This time around, however, both sides agree amicably to return to the negotiating table for another day. After all, the MILF flies back to Manila on Sunday. The government, meanwhile, books another flight for Saturday. 

A similar situation faced the panels when the Framework Agreement was completed in October 2012. They even had to extend the talks thrice just to arrive at an agreement. 

PRESIDENT'S MAN. Presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda arrives on the scheduled last day of the talks. The negotiations are extended twice.

The last few minutes

Tired and exhausted from the weeks’ talks, coming back for another day is not an option for the parties any more. It’s make or break. No more extensions — Saturday would be the absolute last day.

For the whole day, everyone back home is glued to updates, waiting whether the panels would achieve a breakthrough. Little did anyone know Saturday would shape up to be one of the longest sessions the panels would have in a long time. 

Aware of the apparent deadlock in the negotiations for the 3 crucial days, Moro groups and people outside the government panel have been doing their own backchannelling with the MILF for the government panel.

As the sun comes down on Saturday, there is still no news about the annex. 

At about 7:30 pm, the panels start accepting calls from the media. They are on a short break to allow Muslim members of the panels to break their fast.  

In a phone interview, Iqbal says the most contentious issue facing the panels at that point of the talks has to do with the Regalian Doctrine, a concept embodied in the Constitution. It says that all lands and natural resources in the public domain belong to the State. The MILF does not want to include this provision. (The government later on agreed to remove references to this in the annex.)

Up to the last minute of the talks, Deles says it’s unclear whether an annex will be signed that day. 

At 10 pm, some 12 hours after talks started, the MILF calls for a caucus. 

“At that time,” Ferrer tells reporters in a dinner press conference days later, “I was doing this (tapping her fingers alternately against each other), while asking ‘May annex ba o wala?“(Will there be an annex or not?)

When the MILF emerges from their caucus, they present a proposal. The government agrees to it. But the MILF has another last-minute insertion. “Good thing it wasn’t difficult to grant,” Ferrer says. 

What were the last few items they discussed?

The very last item, the last-minute “bonus,” concerns a “number,” Deles says.

Ferrer explains further: “It contains formulations they wanted cleared.”

Both Deles and Ferrer, however, refuse to elaborate further. 

Deles says there are many “heartstopping moments” during the last few hours, making the government wonder whether the issue at hand could well just be the deal-breaker. 

SESSION. Talks were described as 'tense' and 'at times emotional' but always 'congenial.' Photo by OPAPP

Concessions from both sides

Before this round of talks, the MILF has been adamant it will stick with the wealth-sharing annex initialed in February, Sources say the document contains a 75-25 sharing arrangement across the board – for natural resources. 

But a government source says Aquino was “very firm” about the MILF not having a 75-25 wealth-sharing ratio across the board.

After the February annex was drafted, the government panel conducted a series of consultations with Cabinet secretaries and other officials to assess the constitutionality and practicality of the annex. They refused to sign and discuss the annex twice — in March and April.

The government, instead, presented a brand-new proposal just a month before the talks during the negotiators’ forum in Oslo, Norway. 

As in any negotiations, any document signed represents compromises from both sides. 

“Everything moved,” Ferrer says. “Otherwise there will be no deal.” 

At 10:30 pm, OPAPP announces the parties have completed the wealth-sharing annex. The final document grants automatic annual appropriations to the Bangsamoro political entity with the following wealth-sharing arrangements: 

  • 75-25 in favor of the Bangsamoro for taxes and charges “other than tariff and custom duties” collected within its jurisdiction
  • 75-25 in favor of the Bangsamoro for profits from metallic minerals
  • 100% of revenues form non-metallic minerals (sand, gravel and quarry resources) will go to Bangsamoro
  • “Equal share” between the Bangsamoro government and the central government for income from energy sources, such as petroleum, natural gas and uranium

READ: Bangsamoro gets 75% of taxes, resources

Ferrer admits the 50-50 sharing arrangement for energy sources was one ítem that the government could not let go.

In the end, the MILF agreed to a 50-50 sharing ratio for energy sources while sharing for metallic minerals remained at 75-25 with government income from non-metallic minerals all going to the Bangsamoro.

In terms of compromises, the situation was “more or less a give-and-take.”

“We tried to count what we have given up, what they have given up — patas naman (It’s fair),” Ferrer says.

BREAKTHROUGH. Government peace panel chair Miriam Coronel-Ferrer, Malaysian facilitator Tengku Dato Ab Ghafar Tengku Mohamed and MILF peace panel chair Mohagher Iqbal sign the wealth-sharing annex and joint statement. Photo from OPAPP

The President’s role

He jumpstarted the talks with the MILF when he met MILF chairman Al Haj Murad Ebrahim in Japan back in 2011. Just how involved was the President in the last round of talks?

Ferrer says that aside from sending his spokesperson to the talks, “concerned secretaries” are constantly in touch with the President on “very specific issues and specific language for approval” up until the last few hours of the 38th round of talks. 

With Deles in Kuala Lumpur and Lacierda back in Manila, the panels have a direct line to the President from both sides of the fence. 

In the last few hours, Ferrer says Aquino had only one question for them: What’s the deal breaker?

“So we asked the MILF, what’s the deal breaker?” Ferrer says. “Buti na lang hindi pareho yung deal breaker namin at saka deal breaker nila so pwedeng i-swak. Kasi kung hindi, e di walang deal. Kasi kung hindi na-settle ‘yun, we would have gone home without an annex kasi pagod na pagod na.”

(Good thing their deal breaker and our deal breaker were not the same so we could complement each other. Otherwise, there wouldn’t have been a deal. If it wasn’t settled, we would have gone home without an annex because we were too tired.)

Ferrer says there are some “key concessions” that the panel could not give to the MILF without the President’s consent. 

As the staff prepares the final document to be signed, Aquino sends a text message to Deles: “Congratulations and thank you.” Sent at 10:46 pm, Deles says. 

After the document is signed, Iqbal tells Rappler the breakthrough is a collective succes: “I am looking at the next challenges.”

Ferrer describes in one word how she feels: Relief.

Both sides expect the next round of talks to be just as hard, filled with ups and downs. 

NEGOTIATIONS. Where the talks are held in Kuala Lumpur.

– Rappler.com

Add a comment

Sort by

There are no comments yet. Add your comment to start the conversation.