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Negotiator recounts tense moments in talks with MILF

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AFP FILE PHOTO

MANILA, Philippines – Before the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front sealed a deal for wealth-sharing in the future Bangsamoro region in Mindanao, there were too many heart-stopping moments and too much wringing of hands in Kuala Lumpur.

There was also a “mild threat” from the MILF, made at the late hours of the sixth day of negotiations, the longest round of talks the government and the secessionist group had under the administration of President Aquino.

Up to the last minute, nobody knew if they would bring home the second of the four annexes to the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro that would make up the comprehensive peace agreement, signed and agreed upon by both parties.

“At the last minute, we took a break again. We sealed the deal at 10:30 p.m. But at 10 p.m. [the MILF] were still having a caucus. At that time we were already thinking, ‘Would there be an annex or none?’” government chief negotiator Miriam Coronel-Ferrer said.

Ferrer said what the President wanted to know was, “What is the deal breaker?”

Ferrer and Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process Teresita Deles did not go into the specifics of the deal breaker, which, by their recollection, turned out to be more than one.

“But the last had to do with certain formulations they wanted to clarify,” Ferrer said.

A source with knowledge of the negotiations told the Inquirer that the MILF’s “mild threat” was the deal breaker of all deal breakers on July 13, the last day of the talks.

The source said MILF chief negotiator Mohagher Iqbal told the government panel that MILF Chair Murad Ebrahim had called him up. “Chairman Murad had said that there would be no more extensions (to the talks) and that if there was no agreement that day, the MILF panel would go home,” the source said, requesting anonymity as he was not allowed to discuss the negotiations with journalists.

“It was the mild threat that broke the deal,” the source added.

The source said it was the reason why the government gave in to the “Regalian doctrine” in the Constitution and the MILF gave in to the 50-50 sharing but with incremental increase in the fossil fuels (oil, natural gas, coal) and uranium.

The Regalian doctrine is embodied in Section 2 of Article XII of the Constitution, which states that all lands and natural resources in the public domain belong to the state.

Lawyer Armi Bayot, a member of the legal team from the Office of the Solicitor General, who had stayed with Ferrer and Deles said the government panel agreed to remove references to the Regalian doctrine in the wealth-sharing annex to show respect and acknowledge the history of the Bangsamoro people.

At a dinner with reporters on Thursday, Ferrer showed how she wrung her hands and pursed her lips while she, Deles, panel member Yasmin Busran-Lao, and Bayot waited for the MILF negotiators to return from their caucus.

They also gave credit to the MILF team for its dedication to the talks, noting that it was the fasting month of Ramadhan, the holiest for Muslims.

Iqbal and his team did not eat or drink the whole day, breaking their fast only at sundown.

Ferrer fasted along with her counterparts, not drinking water while they were negotiating. “I drank during our breaks,” she said.

When the MILF panel sat and faced the government anew, Deles said they had a proposal, which wasn’t too difficult to accept.

The government panel thought they were getting closer to signing the annex, when the MILF negotiators said there was one more thing.

“I just thought, ‘Oh, no! What could that be?’” Deles recalled, laughing.

“But that wasn’t too hard to give as well,” Ferrer added.

“There were a lot of heart-stopping moments,” Deles admitted.

Ferrer said that throughout the negotiations, the President and the Cabinet secretaries whose tasks concerned the issues in the wealth-sharing annex “were in touch with very specific issues, very specific language for approval.”

“There were some key concessions that we cannot give without (the President’s) consent,” Ferrer said.

At dinner, the President’s negotiators appeared relaxed and relieved. It had been tough for everyone, to say the least.

There had been a lull in the talks since April, and the MILF was getting anxious about the delay in the resumption of the negotiations apparently because the government was reviewing the wealth-sharing document initialed by the two parties in February.

The MILF was not happy at all that the government appeared to be reneging on an initialed wealth-sharing document. Iqbal declared in June that the talks were deadlocked because the MILF would not accept any changes to the document.

Days after the declaration, Iqbal and Ferrer were at the same human rights conference in Oslo where through the Malaysian facilitator, Datu Tengku, the government handed its proposed changes to the  annex.

Ferrer said at the dinner that there was quite a difference between the Oslo document and the annex signed in Kuala Lumpur.

“Everything moved, but some (of the proposals) survived. Some were about finding the right language,” she said.

Ferrer said the most contentious in the wealth-sharing annex “ever since” had been taxation, natural resources, and the annual block grant, which allows the Bangsamoro to get automatic appropriation in the national budget.

In the end, both parties compromised all in the name of peace.

“We tried to count what we had given up and what they had given up. We found out it was the same. It was a give and take… It was not as if one side gave up everything,” Ferrer said.

Deles and Ferrer declined to give deadlines for the last two remaining annexes. They noted that the deadlines were what the media appeared to be all focused on.

But they gave an assurance that the panels will try to have a peace deal by the end of the year, or a year after the breakthrough Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro was signed.

The next round of talks in August has yet to be scheduled, this time sans the heavy atmosphere that started the recently concluded talks.

Both panels are still hammering out the normalization and power-sharing annexes.

“[The government] has a huge obligation to deliver the basic law to the Bangsamoro, but when it comes to the decommissioning (disarming the MILF fighters), that’s their counterpart to the whole thing,” Ferrer said.

She added that often, the peace panel is asked by other government people, “What’s in it for us?”

“Our answer is, ‘It’s this: you have peace,’” Ferrer said.


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Tags: Government , MILF , MILF peace talks , Mindanao peace process , Miriam Coronel-Ferrer , Peace Talks




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