MILF: 'Very slim chance' peace deal will be completed this round

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – As the military heightened its offensive against a renegade faction of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) in Zamboanga, the peace panels of the government and MNLF's rival group, Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), took a one-day break here after 6 days of non-stop discussion.  

This gave the parties time to report to their respective principals (President Benigno Aquino III for the government and Chairman Al Haj Murad Ebrahim for the MILF) about updates on the remaining issues on power-sharing and normalization that are up for discussion on the table, government chief negotiator Miriam Coronel-Ferrer said Monday, September 16.

Days before the Zamboanga siege, both sides had high hopes the final peace deal that will give rise to the envisioned Bangsamoro political entity will be completed in this round.

But from being a big possibility, MILF chief negotiator Mohagher Iqbal said Monday there is at present a "very slim chance" that the two remaining annexes on power-sharing and normalization will be finished this round. 

Ferrer however said the government is "ready" and willing to extend just to finish the documents. 

What changed? And is it connected with the ongoing conflict in Zamboanga City led by an MNLF faction identified with its founding chairman Nur Misuari, a staunch critic of the GPH-MILF peace talks?

As far as both sides are concerned, the answer is both a yes and a no.

Slow process

The current peace process aims to end at least 3 decades of rebellion by the MILF, a breakaway group of the MNLF. After the MNLF signed a peace pact with the Ramos government in 1996, the MILF became the most formidable Muslim rebel movement in the South, with bailiwicks in Central Mindanao.

But the breakthrough that it reached with the Aquino government has not sat well with Misuari and his faction. His armed followers seized villages in Zamboanga City on September 9, on the day the talks between the government and the MILF were scheduled to resume here.

As what both the government and the MILF earlier reiterated, Iqbal said the  Zamboanga siege should not derail the 16-year negotiation, which is now on its final chapter.

“On the contrary, it gives more reason for the parties to move on," Iqbal said.

Iqbal earlier criticized the “radical anarchists” in Mindanao for feasting on the GPH-MILF peace panels’ “perceived failures” and refusing to support the “peaceful political settlement of the Bangsamoro Question.”  

Misuari wants to renegotiate aspects of the 1996 peace agreement. But the government and the MILF believe the issues being raised by the MNLF founder can be addressed in the Bangsamoro Basic Law, which will provide the legal framework for the new political entity.

What then is keeping them from finishing the contents of the annexes?  

"Mabagal masyado (The process is too slow). We took a break today and we will resume tomorrow. Issues are really hard," Iqbal said in a text message. 

But Ferrer said the process only appears to be slow because both sides agreed to expand the list of of "15 to 17" concurrent or shared powers from mere listings to full sentences which identify "what exactly both sides are committing to." 

Two annexes to the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro signed in October 2012 are still pending before the final agreement can be signed. They include details on how power will be shared between the Bangsamoro and the central government, as well as how the normalization process, including decommissioning of arms, will be implemented.

'Emotional issues'

As Iqbal earlier noted, the annex on normalization contains “sensitive and emotional issues” for the Bangsamoro. It includes the following issues: policing, transitional security arrangements, decommissioning of arms, disposition of Armed Forces, disbandment of private armed groups, socio-economic programs, and reconciliation and justice.

Iqbal has said the annex on power-sharing has been a “tough nut to crack for more than a year.” 

The framework agreement has 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.

In July, both parties signed a historic wealth-sharing agreement that provided a 75% share in metallic minerals and taxes to 75% for the proposed region. It was completed against the backdrop of attacks launched by members of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, a breakaway MILF group, in Maguindanao.

SENSITIVE ISSUES. Gov't peace panel chair Miriam Corone-Ferrer lead discussions with the technical working group on normalization. Photo by OPAPP

SENSITIVE ISSUES. Gov't peace panel chair Miriam Corone-Ferrer lead discussions with the technical working group on normalization.

Photo by OPAPP

Gov't ready to sign annexes

It's an irony that as the government and the MILF negotiate for an arrangement towards normalization, violence continues to prevail in Zamboanga. 

Ferrer said she sought to stress in an executive session with the MILF that it is not only the text of the peace deal itself that should reflect inclusivity but also the "understanding" and "perspective" of both sides. 

“I expressed to my counterpart, in front of the facilitator, in an executive session, the urgency of our task precisely because we have this roadmap that we are trying to achieve," Ferrer said. "The provisions we are working on should reflect inclusivity as to the fact of multiple stakeholders in the area and also the kind of shared concerns that the central government, the [proposed] Bangsamoro government and the Bangsamoro people have. 

After all, what the government is negotiating with the MILF is not just for the MILF's own good, Ferrer said. 

"The bottomline is what we're doing is we are negotiating for peace, the bottomline is the process has to be peaceful and what should be created should be mechanisms that allow for the peaceful political participation and economic upliftment of the region," Ferrer said. 

But would this be enough to get Misuari, as well as the MNLF, on board? 

Ferrer said: "I don't think it's about the issues. it's about himself. We have far better solutions than what we have now. As for himself, the process is open to him. Unfortunately, this has not been broadcast well enough. They were invited to the Transition Commission. They refused to join it."

Ferrer said the government is ready to complete the annexes even it means having to extend the talks to a few more days.

"We're still aiming for that," Ferrer said. "We are ready. We hope the other party is also ready for that."

The government wants to finish the transition towards the Bangsamoro region before President Aquino steps down from office in 2016.