Gov’t, MILF gear up for ‘final’ round of peace talks

On the agenda: power-sharing between the proposed Bangsamoro political entity and central government, and normalization

HOPEFUL. The government and the MILF resume talks this September. Photo by OPAPP

MANILA, Philippines – After more than 3 decades of armed struggle in Mindanao – and after 17 years of negotiations between the government and rebel group Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) – both parties have arrived at what they hope to be their final meeting in Kuala Lumpur. 

Their respective peace panels will hold talks for at least 10 days in a bid to arrive at a deal on how power will be shared between the proposed Bangsamoro political entity and the central government, as well as how MILF troops will undergo the normalization process. 

There’s an air of optimism from both sides since the parties have already signed the contentious wealth-sharing annex, which gave the Bangsamoro 75% of revenues from taxes and metallic minerals. 

“I think we’re confident because we’ve gone through difficulties in the past but we were able to overcome it,” government chief negotiator Miriam Coronel-Ferrer told Rappler, Friday, September 6. “I think after we finished the wealth-sharing annex, after a very difficult round of negotiations, where we had an extended process after a lot of delays were incurred, both of us feel more confident that we can hurdle the obstacles.” 

MILF chief negotiator Mohagher Iqbal hopes their next meeting at the Palace of the Golden Horses in Kuala Lumpur would be the final one. 

“It depends, It can be the last or there would be more rounds. But I hope this would be the last,” Iqbal earlier said in a text message. 

The signing of the comprehensive agreement with the MILF will allow the Bangsamoro peace process to move forward, with a number of mechanisms for the transition already in place. 

The Third Party Monitoring, which is tasked to review, asses and monitor the implementation of the final peace agreement, has already been convened. 

Meanwhile, the Transition Commission – the body tasked to craft the Bangsamoro Basic Law, which will provide the legal framework for the proposed entity – is ready to start work. 

In order to beat their deadline to complete the transition process from the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao to the future Bangsamoro government, the Basic Law must be completed and passed by Congress by 2014. 

Last two annexes

What are the remaining issues? 

On the power-sharing annex, Ferrer said they are working at “cleaning up the text and tightening the language.” 

The Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro signed in October 2012 identified some of the “reserved powers” for the central government. What the annex on power-sharing will identify are mostly the “concurrent powers” or shared powers between the Bangsamoro region and central government and what would be the “exclusive powers” of the Bangsamoro. 

One of the remaining issues has to do with jurisdiction over transportation and communication, given the fact that these are also bound by international law. 

Meanwhile, the process of normalization will provide for specially-designed economic programs for the proposed entity in parallel with the decommissioning of MILF troops and the disbandment of private armed groups.  

Graphics by OPAPP

The phasing and timeline of decommissioning of the MILF and other armed groups is one aspect that is still up for discussion in the negotiating table. 

Sources said the MILF wants to decommission their arms after all private armed groups have done so. The government, meanwhile, wants a “gradual and phased” approach as agreed in the FAB. 

Ferrer said both sides are looking at “several models” on how to proceed.  

Learning from the past 

As the MILF and the government draws closer to signing a final peace pact, this month also marks the 17th year since the 1996 peace agreement with the Moro National Liberation Front was signed. The MILF is a breakaway group of the MNLF. 

Up to now, the MNLF insists that the government has not fulfilled the 1996 peace pact, especially on certain aspects relating to the expansion of the Muslim Mindanao territory, establishing a provisional government and provisions on strategic minerals in the ARMM Organic Act. 

To address these issues, the government and the MNLF are in the process of conducting a tripartite review with the Organization of Islamic Conference. The end goal is to reconcile the “issues” raised by the MNLF over current negotiations with the MILF through the Bangsamoro Basic Law. 

The MNLF has opposed the current Bangsamoro peace process. Although the government invited the group to be part of the Transition Commision, they declined to participate. 

Recently, news reports said MNLF founder Nur Misuari declared the independence of a “Bangsamoro Republik.”

This, along with a spate of violence in Cagayan de Oro and Cotabato City, has raised concerns over whether this new agreement will indeed result in lasting peace in Mindanao.  

In a forum on the Bangsamoro peace process at the Ateneo De Manila University on Friday, former president Fidel V Ramos, whose administration inked a deal with Misuari, urged everyone to take pointers from the past. 

We should appreciate the antecedents of the current peace process in that the agreement, formula, process at that time, including the one ongoing now could be as beautiful as the wisdom of man that ever make with the blessings of the good Lord but it is in the implementation that really matters,” Ramos said. 

Ramos noted that the MNLF agreement, at that time, was lauded in international circles – much like the current peace process – because it contained a unique provision: the integration of the rebels into the Armed Forces and the Philippine National Police. 

According to the International Contact Group (ICG), the 1996 peace agreement allocated 5,750 slots in the military and 1,750 slots in the police for MNLF fighters. The rest of MNLF’s 17,000 fighters were given access to socio-economic, cultural and livelihood programs. 

But Ramos himself admitted that under that agreement, the MNLF was “required to lay down their firearms peacefully but if they did not, the government did not force them.”

In its June 2013 report, the ICG said the MNLF experience “contains a sobering lesson about the risks of allowing insurgents to remain armed,” especially after some MNLF fighters switched to the MILF while others joined the extremist Abu Sayyaf. 

Clear benchmarks

The current peace negotiations between the government and the MILF is careful not to fall into the same trap. 

To prevent the peace process from dragging, Ferrer said it would be ideal if both sides provide “very clear benchmarks” on their commitments. 

For example, it can be expected that the final peace pact with the MILF will specify how many MILF troops or how many arms will be decommissioned at a certain point in time on the side of the MILF, as well as how many military troops will be re-assigned on the side of the government. 

In a region where there are 85 armed groups as of November 2012, while groups such as the MNLF, the increasingly violent MILF breakaway group Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, and the Abu Sayyaf continue to exist, what value does having a comprehensive agreement with the MILF hold? 

The government and the MILF have always said it would all come down to getting the best arrangement for the Bangsamoro. And if the MILF were to be believed, it would not take sole credit for resolving the “Bangsamoro question.” 

In an editorial posted on Sunday, September 8, in its official website, Luwaran, the MILF said: 

“Lastly, let it also be stated here that the MILF does not attach franchise right to solving the Bangsamoro Question. Whoever has the right formula, we firmly subscribe to it. Individuals or leaders can only be good up to a certain period; after that, he has to go – if possible, for good.”

After Congress passes the Basic Law, the MILF-led Bangsamoro Transition Authority will take over until the election of new officials in 2016. – Rappler.com

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