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MILF warns gov't: Clock is ticking

MANILA, Philippines -- The clock is ticking on the peace process, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) warned government on Thursday, April 11, as the formal talks in Kuala Lumpur ended without any agreement.

Despite an earlier target to sign a final peace pact by April, both parties failed to complete any annexes in the latest round of talks. The next round of talks will be held after the May 13 elections - a timetable the MILF had dreaded.

MILF chief negotiator Mohagher Iqbal earlier said it would be ideal to finish the negotiations before the May elections.

With the delay, Iqbal cautioned the government against prolonging the talks further.  

Asked whether he's frustrated, Iqbal told Rappler in a text message Thursday: "A real negotiator will not be frustrated under any situation. But GPH (government) must tighten its belt. Time is ticking away."

The government, for its part, was quick to respond to concerns that the peace talks has turned from upbeat to uncertain. 

In an FAQ on the 37th round of talks released by the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (OPAPP) a few hours after the talks ended Thursday, the government said:

"The Government panel had a frank and candid discussion with the MILF during the last round of talks. They have reiterated their commitment to the peace process and their trust and confidence on President Aquino and their counterparts. As in the past, all hard feelings were smoothened out, and the next steps were ironed out. There is clarity on how to move forward."

This is not the first time that the MILF -- which has been embroiled in a 40-year struggle for autonomy and self-determination -- has called for "a sense of urgency" in the talks. 

In an editorial published in luwaran.com on March 24, the MILF said: "The urgency of concluding the peace talks is in the minds of the MILF leadership. We know that the momentum is there but any dilly-dallying is bringing us closer to the other path. The truth is that if we cannot close this negotiation successfully during the administration of President Benigno Aquino III, we do not know what lies ahead in 2016. And more seriously, it can be a menu for more violence and fighting in Mindanao."

Main cause of delay 

The main cause of delay is the annex on wealth-sharing, which includes issues on the devolvement of natural resources, as well as taxation. 

"The government is not ready to sign [the] wealth-sharing [annex]. They asked for more time," Iqbal told Rappler in a text message. "The MILF is ready."

In an interview with Rappler last week, Iqbal said that as far as the peace panels were concerned, they have "practically sealed the deal" on the wealth-sharing annex. 

After the 36th round of peace talks, Former Agriculture Secretary Senen Bacani, one of the members of the government peace panel, expressed the same sentiment, saying that the annex was "almost ironed out" and working solutions have been formulated on the 3 remaining contentious items:

However, any agreements still have to be approved by President Benigno Aquino III and MILF chairman Al Haj Murad Ebrahim. 

"We already have a formula for that," Iqbal told Rappler in last week's interview. "As far as the two parties are concerned, we have already settled that. But in any peace negotiation, there is that principle of ad referendum. What does that mean? It means that even though the two negotiators agree already on the track, the principals in the MILF, the government, can still review the track because the final say belongs to the principals," Iqbal said. 

For the MILF, a wealth-sharing arrangement has to happen between the Bangsamoro and the national government. 

"There has to be wealth-sharing. Because the reality is, in Mindanao, especially with what we call the ancestral domain of our people, everything is being decided by Manila. All the natural resources have been at the sole discretion of Manila. So, we want to have a share on this," he said. 

The latest round of talks was supposed to have been held last March 25, but was suspended for two weeks upon the request of President Aquino, who said he wanted to review the content of the annexes first. 

In the OPAPP's FAQ, the government said it was "cautiously moving forward" considering that the talks are "at the homestretch of discussing the most difficult issues of the negotiations."

"The Government is diligently studying the totality of the commitments, especially their legal, political and financial implication.  The GPH wants a peace agreement that is based on a foundation. As the President has said time and again, deliver what we commit to; commit to what we will be able to deliver," OPAPP said.

Other contentious issues

During the first meeting of the Transition Commission on April 3, OPAPP Secretary Teresita Deles gave her word that the government will stick with their intended timetable of finishing the transition towards the Bangsamoro within the Aquino administration, acknowledging that the peace talks is in "a race against time." 

"Without setting rigid deadlines, we have a timetable and we are serious about it,” she said.

Other contentious issues remain unresolved. 

Both panels have only signed one out of the 4 annexes needed to complement the Framework Agreement signed in October 2012 -- the Annex on Transitional Arrangements and Modalities, which outlines the transition process from the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao to the new Bangsamoro political identity.

As of the last round of talks, the annex on normalization still remains at the level of the technical working groups. The annex contains the 3 most contentious issues of the peace talks -- decommissioning of firearms, the creation of the Bangsamoro police force, and the deployment of government troops to MILF areas. 

Although the The Transition Commission has started working on its internal rules and regulations, as well as logistical requirements needed for its operation, it needs a comprehensive peace agreement before it can proceed with the drafting of the Bangsamoro Basic Law. 

In their joint statement for the 37th round of negotiations, both sides "agreed to exchange notes through the Facilitator in the coming days" and affirmed their commitment to settle the issues "so that all three Annexes may be signed without due delay."

Although the annexes on power-sharing, wealth-sharing and normalization have yet to be completed, both parties were able to sign the Terms of Reference of the Sajahatra Bangsamoro, a basic services program for MILF communities that President Aquino launched in February in a historic visit to the MILF stronghold- Rappler.com