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Peace pact with MILF possible in 5 weeks, says gov’t negotiator

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ILIGAN CITY—It is still possible for the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) to sign a final peace agreement within the next five weeks, the Aquino administration’s chief peace negotiator said on Sunday.

A final agreement that would end 40 years of conflict in Muslim Mindanao has been delayed for six months, which the MILF blames on the government’s taking too long to decide on the last terms for the establishment of a new autonomous region on the island.

Frustrated at the lack of progress in the negotiations, the MILF said on Saturday that the talks had reached a deadlock.

Alarmed, Gov. Mujiv Hataman of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao and Jolly Lais, secretary general of the Bangsamoro Solidarity Movement, on Sunday urged the government and the MILF not to squander the gains they had made and press the negotiations for a final peace deal.

Peace activists also stepped in, urging both sides to restart talks, the last round of which was held in Kuala Lumpur in April.

“It is worrisome to note that up to now, there is still no schedule for the next round of talks,” the peace group Mindanao Peoples Caucus said in a statement.

Both sides are aiming for a final peace agreement before President Aquino’s term ends in 2016.

That is “very limited time,” the caucus said, and delay in the resolution of differences between the two sides on the last three annexes to the preliminary peace deal they signed last year could have “irreversible consequences.”

Contentious issues

The three annexes concern wealth and power-sharing, and “normalization”—the laying down of arms by the MILF and reassimilation of its fighters into society.

“Both parties need to find creative solutions to the issues to expedite the negotiations,” said Miriam Coronel-Ferrer, head of the government’s peace panel.

“The government panel is just as anxious to find workable solutions to these contentious issues and is working diligently and with urgency toward this end,” Ferrer said in an interview with the Inquirer by phone.

Despite the snag, Ferrer said she was confident that it was “still possible” for the two sides to sign a final peace accord within the next five weeks.

The two sides have exchanged notes for “more clarity” in the language to be used in the final peace agreement concerning the last three issues.

Ferrer said talks could resume in Kuala Lumpur once the two sides “come as close as possible to [an] agreed language” in the annexes on wealth and power-sharing.

Not working

MILF chief negotiator Mohagher Iqbal said on Saturday that the exchange of notes did not translate into progress in the talks.

“There is an exchange of notes, but we don’t see it working. Nothing will happen with the exchange of notes. The government is diluting the initialed wealth-sharing annex. It is downgrading the annex,” Iqbal said.

He said the MILF would not agree to any changes to the annex the government might propose.

In a statement, the MILF said the changes had to do with wealth-sharing involving taxes, block grants and the proposed Bangsamoro region’s share in income from use of the region’s natural resources.

Ferrer said her panel “recommended refinements” to the wealth-sharing annex with the “practical concern” of “how to operationalize” it, not to water it down.

“What the MILF laid down [is] principles. We worked on the question of how to do it,” she said.

Due diligence

Malacañang on Saturday declined to discuss its position on the last three annexes, just saying that the government was exercising due diligence by reviewing those issues.

On Sunday, President Aquino’s deputy spokesperson, Abigail Valte, said the government was taking a “close look” at the annexes and making sure they would “pass muster.”

Valte made a reference to the Arroyo administration’s 2008 ancestral domain deal with the MILF that would have given the secessionist group an independent state in Mindanao.

Various groups challenged the deal in the Supreme Court, which struck it down as unconstitutional.

The Aquino administration used that ruling as a guide in writing the framework agreement with the MILF.

Hataman said the President was reviewing the annexes because he wanted “sustainability.”

He acknowledged that wealth-sharing and power-sharing were contentious issues, but delay in their resolutions should “not be a cause for stopping the talks.”

Hataman appealed to both sides to be “open” and “pragmatic” in finding ways to resolve their differences.

Resume talks

The talks should be resumed soon so that the issues could be clarified, he said.

Lais said the two sides should be open-minded about “adjustments.”

“They should resume talks and open their minds. They should thresh out conflicting views and agree on the little things first,” Lais said by phone.

“If they are talking normalization, power-sharing and wealth-sharing, that’s the battleground,” he said. “I challenge them to make conflict a history and pursue peace.”

The military said it supported the peace process and hoped MILF commanders would overcome their frustration so that the slow progress in the peace negotiations would not lead to the resumption of violence in Mindanao.

As in any negotiation, said Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala, chief of the military’s Public Affairs Office, it is normal for the talks between the government and the MILF to run into dilemmas.

The important thing, he said, is for both sides to keep their lines of communications open.

“As far as we’re concerned… we’re headed toward peace. That’s our road map when it comes to the MILF,” Zagala said.—With reports from TJ A. Burgonio and Marlon Ramos in Manila


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Tags: Government , Mindanao , Moro Insurgency , Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) , peace process , Peace Talks , Philippines




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