MILF to hold big rally; gov't closely watching

MANILA, Philippines – The government will closely watch a major meeting of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) this weekend as the two sides move closer toward a deal.

Government of the Philippines (GPH) Peace Panel Chairman Marvic Leonen said the government supports the assembly, which will help it gauge the “levels of unity and following” of the MILF.

The MILF will hold the Moro Leaders Assembly in its administrative base in Darapanan, Sultan Kudarat, Maguindanao from Saturday, July 6, to Monday, July 9. The event is expected to draw 500,000 people from all over Mindanao.

Leonen himself is attending. Ghazali Jaafar, MILF vice-chairman for political affairs, told Rappler that they have also invited Presidential Peace Adviser Ging Deles; Ekmeleddin Ehsanoglu, secretary-general of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC); and Malaysian peace facilitator Dato’ Tengku Ab’ Ghafar bin Tengku Mohamed. The MILF said that Nur Misuari, chair of the Moro National Liberation Front, is also expected to attend the assembly.

In an interview on Rappler’s #TalkThursday, July 5, Leonen told Rappler CEO and Executive Editor Maria Ressa that the MILF meeting aims to consult members about the details of an agreement that the two panels are working on.

“As part of the assessment perhaps, we can see how much following the MILF still has, and the government as a matter of policy is supportive of these consultations, whatever it takes for the MILF to convince older constituency that what has been agreed [upon] at the negotiating table is something that is realistic but at the same time will serve as the foundation to meet some of their aspirations.”

The MILF said in a statement on its website that the general assembly "shall be historic, momentous and crucial." The MILF held similar assemblies in 1997, 2001 and 2005.

Leonen said both panels have been holding consultations with various stakeholders as part of efforts to forge a peace agreement within the year. (Read: Government to push pact with MILF within the year)

The Philippine government has been negotiating with the MILF for more than a decade now in an effort to settle the armed conflict in the organization's bailiwicks in Central and Western Mindanao. Various foreign governments have supported the process through development projects, including the United States, Japan, and Australia, since they see a peace pact as a crucial step in helping defeat terrorism in the region.

Leonen said the government panel has been consulting Cabinet Secretaries, legislators, down to municipal governors and mayors.

“I think this is what is new with the Aquino panel that while we’re waiting for instructions from the President and briefing him, we are also in conversation with other parts of the entire government in order to avoid the mistake of the MOA-AD where everyone was caught by surprise.”

Leonen was referring to the botched Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD) in 2008.

The Arroyo administration initialed the MOA-AD but the Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional, citing the lack of consultation as among the reasons. 

‘Cautiously optimistic’

After 14 years of negotiations, Leonen said he is “cautiously optimistic” that the government and the MILF will reach an agreement. He cited as a positive development the observance of a ceasefire from January up to the present.

In 2011, the government recorded 8 skirmishes between the military and the MILF, compared to zero this year, based on data from the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process.

“Finally, hopefully, we’ll ink an agreement at the soonest possible time,” Leonen said.

He said the panels are in the final stage of the peace process, negotiating details and the “substantive points that will go into a final political settlement or what the MILF calls the Bangsamoro question itself.” 

Last April, the government and the MILF released 10 decision points or broad principles they agreed upon. The decision points are geared toward creating a political entity replacing the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).

Leonen said the entity’s powers, geographical scope and wealth sharing are among the contentious issues still under negotiation.

“I think much of the difficulty in political negotiations is to determine how much detail you want to talk about in a peace agreement because the parties have to understand that … we will have to have the critical political mass both of the public and in the proper legislative chambers if necessary to pass the necessary law.”

Leonen, however, said both sides are working to see a deal through.

“The MILF I think is seeing the possibility that there may be a final political settlement.”

“They want to prepare for governance. As a matter of fact, their peace panels have gone out of their way to make presentations with non-Moro traditional constituents like the business and diplomatic communities.” 

For government’s part, Leonen said the Aquino administration’s P8-B stimulus fund aims to jumpstart the economy of ARMM, particularly for social services, and economic infrastructure.

KEY MEETING. President Aquino met with MILF Chairman Al Haj Murad Ibrahim in Tokyo, Japan last August 2011. Malacau00f1ang Photo Bureau

KEY MEETING. President Aquino met with MILF Chairman Al Haj Murad Ibrahim in Tokyo, Japan last August 2011.

Malacau00f1ang Photo Bureau

Splinter group?

Leonen also responded to fears that a deal will be reached only to have splinter groups in the end. (Read: Renegade MILF leader doubts PNoy's commitment to peace

“With [Ameril] Umra Kato, we know that some of his subcommanders have returned to the MILF. We also know that he is seriously ill and we are watching the developments … but they are not really a force to contend with, to deal with right now.”

The GPH peace panel chairman said that mutual trust and President Benigno Aquino III’s commitment helped achieve gains in the peace process.

In August 2011, Aquino agreed to secretly meet with the MILF leadership in Tokyo, Japan. The President also rejected calls for an all-out war against the MILF following the death of 19 soldiers in a clash in Al-Barka, Basilan in October 2011.

Leonen said, “I think the optimism is from the idea that this is a president who will not run for a second term, will not use this mechanism as a vehicle for his own personal ambitions.” 

“This is a president who has shown he can put everything on the line. We just saw it in the impeachment of very high officials and the cleanup of the ARMM government that is now underway so therefore that is where the optimism is coming from.”

The 2012 Global Peace Index has cited the Philippines as among the top 5 nations that registered “improvements in peacefulness” along with Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe, Bhutan and Guyana. – with reports from Amir Mawallil/Rappler.com