Peace Talks Nearing Dead End, Says MILF Panel Chief

Real movement in the peace talks is possible only if both parties–especially the GRP–can find “a way forward,” MILF Negotiating Panel chairman Mohagher Iqbal said.

BY ALEXANDER MARTIN REMOLLINO
Bulatlat
Vol. VIII, No. 1, February 3-6, 2008

The peace negotiations between the Government of the Republic (GRP) of the Philippines and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) are nearing a dead end, if we ask MILF Negotiating Panel chairman Mohagher Iqbal. Real movement in the peace talks is possible only if both parties – especially the GRP – can find “a way forward,” Iqbal said in an e-mail interview with Bulatlat.

Last December, the GRP-MILF peace negotiations reached a deadlock over the ancestral domain issue.

The ancestral domain issue, which was first discussed only in 2004 or some eight years after the talks started, has turned out to be the most contentious issue in the GRP-MILF peace negotiations.

The MILF last year was proposing a Bangsamoro Juridical Entity that would be based on an ancestral domain claim of the Bangsa Moro people over Mindanao, Sulu, and Palawan.

The GRP had insisted that areas to be covered by the Bangsamoro Juridical Entity other than the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) should be subjected to a plebiscite. This repeatedly led to an impasse in the peace negotiations with the group.

The impasse was broken only in November last year, when the GRP and the MILF reached an agreement defining the land and maritime areas to be covered by the proposed Bangsamoro Juridical Entity.

Things seemed to be looking up after that, causing lawyer Eid Kabalu, then MILF spokesperson, to make media statements to the effect that they expected a final agreement to be signed by mid-2008.

But all hopes for forging a peace pact between the GRP and the MILF were dashed last December, when the peace talks hit a snag following the government’s insistence that the ancestral domain issue be settled through “constitutional processes” – a phrase which, Iqbal said, had been inserted into the agreement without their consent.

“The constitutional process properly belongs to the implementing phase, not in the discussion of the ancestral domain aspect and this is unilateral to the government,” Iqbal said. “We do not understand why the government is raising this issue.”

The government side has denied that the original agreement had been modified. “There was no change from the original proposal,” GRP Negotiating Panel chief Rodolfo Garcia told media on Jan. 15.

Chacha?

The deadlock over the ancestral domain issue in the GRP-MILF peace talks has prompted legal scholar Fr. Joaquin Bernas, who teaches at the Ateneo Law School, to propose what he calls a “surgical constitutional change” to address the conflict in Mindanao.

In his Jan. 21 column for the Philippine Daily Inquirer, Bernas proposed a constitutional amendment that has the sole purpose of effecting “significant changes” in the structure of government in Mindanao.

“In my view, the search for a solution to the Mindanao problem can be approached through this ‘surgical’ method,” Bernas wrote. “More specifically the goal can be either a reformulation of the powers that can be given to the Autonomous Region or the formation of a federated state for Mindanao. I believe that a limited constitutional change can be achieved by Congress under the present constitutional provision without disturbing the rest.”

Bernas’ proposal was praised by Sec. Jesus Dureza, Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process. “I strongly commend the views expressed by Father Bernas in his column pushing for a surgical constitutional change that would eventually benefit the Mindanao peace process, particularly the negotiations with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, for lasting peace in the south,” Dureza said on Jan. 23.

“I am reiterating my earlier proposal to install a Bangsamoro federal governance unit as the only item in any move to change the charter, in order to ensure that it would pass with bipartisan congressional support and enjoy smooth sailing in both chambers of Congress,” Dureza added.

Iqbal, when asked to comment on Bernas’ proposal, acknowledged it but expressed apprehension on the government’s capacity to push it through.

“It is an opening to formulate a new formula for the negotiated political settlement,” Iqbal said of Bernas’ proposal. “Much depends, however, on how much political capital the President has to push it to a concrete constitutional amendment without derogating the text of the GRP-MILF agreement.”

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