TransCom: 'Sabah is beyond our mandate'

MANILA, Philippines (Updated) – The 15-member Transition Commission (TransCom) -- the body tasked to draft the basic law for the new Bangsamoro region in Mindanao – convened for the 1st time on Wednesday, April 3, as issues concerning an unfinished peace agreement and the Sabah question hounded the ceremony.

Will the Transition Commission address the Sabah question, in the wake of the Sultanate of Sulu's renewal of its claim to the area and the bloody standoff that killed Filipinos there? Their answer is: "We will cross the bridge when we get there." But for now, the answer is both a yes and a no. 

For the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), their position is clear: the Sabah issue is not part of the agenda because it requires bilateral negotiations between Manila and Kuala Lumpur.

Mohager Iqbal, chairman of the TransCom, pointed out that Sabah was never included in the provisions of previous peace agreements between the Philippine government and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) – the 1976 Tripoli Agreement and the 1996 peace agreement. Key MNLF leaders broke away from the group to form the MILF.

"It has never been an issue. In 1976, 1996, nowhere in the provisions of both agreements was the issue of Sabah included," according to Iqbal, who is also the MILF's chief negotiator.

“I am not saying that they don’t have a right but it has never been an issue. It’s not an issue, it’s a matter of bilateral negotiations between the Philippine government and the Malaysian government,” he added. 

Although the Sabah question is beyond the mandate of the Transition Commission, TransCom member lawyer Johaira Wahab said the commission will not work in a “political or social vacuum” because part of its functions is to conduct consultations on the ground. 

“Part of our mandate is to conduct consultations. It is not the intention of this body to ignore the realities on the ground. Of course, consultations will happen. We will talk to communities in all the areas concerned. The people in the island provinces of Tawi-Tawi, Sulu and Basilan will be included in those consultations and all of those issues will be included there,” she said.

“However, the reason why we are very careful is because this is the Bangsamoro Transition Commission, this is not the Department of Foreign Affairs. As much as we would comment on the issue of Sabah, that is beyond our mandate as a group based on our personal appointments,” she added.

Despite criticisms regarding Malaysia’s awkward position now as facilitator, the MILF still wants the talks to be held in Malaysia and for Malaysia to remain as the peace broker.

Iqbal even thanked Prime Minister Najib Mohammad Bin Razak and the Malaysian government for continuing to facilitate the GPH-MILF negotiation since 2001. “It is our earnest hope and prayer that Malaysia shall continue to journey with us in these peace efforts in troubled Mindanao through the end,” he said in his speech on Wednesday. 

Tasks of the Transition Commission

After years of negotiations and failed peace agreements in the past, the first meeting of the Transition Commission marks the first time the government and the MILF will formally work together towards building peace. 

“The MILF views the Commission as its first initial partnership with the GPH,” Iqbal said. “We shall not work against each other but instead work with each other to address the Moro problem or more correctly, the Moro question,” he added.

Transcom Member Maulana Alonto said they plan to hold office in Cotabato City but other details, such as the exact venue, frequency of meetings and other rules, are still to be finalized.

The commission will also decide on whether the meetings will be open to the public. But Iqbal gave assurances that the process of drafting the Bangsamoro Basic Law will be inclusive and open to public participation.

Talks resume next week

The 37th round of formal peace talks between the government and the MILF will resume next week after it was postponed on March 25

The MILF hopes to complete all the annexes that will comprise the comprehensive Framework Agreement before the May election. Both sides want to sign a final peace pact by April.

“It is therefore urgent that we complete the Annexes by taking the hard political decisions,” Iqbal said.

Presidential Peace Adviser Teresita Deles said the government remains committed to conclude the peace process with the MILF within the Aquino administration, which ends its term in 2016.

“We will not cease in our steps forward because, as our President, PNoy, has said with regard to this peace track, we do not want to pass on an unfinished business to the next administration. We are in a race against time. Without setting rigid deadlines, we have a timetable and we are serious about it,” she said. 

Both sides have signed the Annex on Transitional Arrangement and Modalities, which outlines the roadmap towards the Bangsamoro.

Two of the 3 remaining annexes, the annexes on power-sharing and wealth-sharing, are almost complete. Meanwhile, 3 main issues are still being threshed out in the annex on normalization, which contains the tough issues of decommissioning, deployment of government troops and the creation of the Bangsamoro police force.  

Rappler.com