Philippine President Benigno Aquino III left the country unannounced on Thursday night to hold unprecedented talks with a Muslim rebel leader in Japan.
Mr. Aquino met for two hours with Murad Ebrahim, chair of the secessionist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), in a hotel near the Narita airport in Tokyo on Thursday evening, the first time a Philippine president has met face-to-face with a leader of the rebel group since on-and-off peace talks started 14 years ago.
They discussed ways to push the peace process forward, said Teresita Quintos-Deles, the presidential peace adviser, who was with Mr. Aquino in Tokyo.
An official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not directly involved in the talks said the meeting was meant to give the peace talks “a shot in the arm” and show support from the “highest level.”
The President’s late mother, President Corazon Aquino, had met with the head of the main Muslim insurgency, Nur Misuari of the Moro National Liberation Front, in Sulu in 1986 to talk peace. The meeting paved the way for the resumption of peace talks that had collapsed during the Marcos dictatorship.
Mr. Aquino had sought the meeting, which had been in the works since late June, Marvic Leonen, the head of the government peace panel, told a press conference shortly after the President and his party arrived from Japan Friday.
Leonen said Mr. Aquino and Murad agreed to “fast-track” the negotiations and that the implementation of any agreement has to happen during the term of Mr. Aquino, who has made the resolution of the Muslim and communist insurgencies a high priority of his administration.
“The meeting was cordial but consisted of a frank and candid exchange of their views about the frames of the continuing peace talks and some possible approaches that the parties can take to bring about a peaceful settlement,” Leonen said.
He said the President had presented “a pragmatic and principled view” on how the talks could move forward and the MILF head also presented “a principled and certain pragmatic realities in terms of the negotiations and in terms of our country.”
Leonen refused to give details of the meeting as doing so would be like negotiating before the public in the media. He said, however, that the meeting did not supplant formal negotiations.
“There was no secret deal made at the meeting,” he stressed.
The MILF called Mr. Aquino’s effort a “grand gesture” that gave “a tremendous boost to the peace process.”
Ghadzali Jaafar, the MILF political affairs chief, said it was “a fruitful meeting.”
No longer separatist
Leonen brushed aside concerns about the propriety of the President meeting with a rebel leader which could be construed as an official recognition of the MILF’s separatist aims, declaring that the MILF was no longer a separatist group.
“They are no longer a secessionist group because their proposal does not include independence anymore. They are not asking to be a separate state. And therefore the implications that you are probably imagining, pardon me, are no longer there,” Leonen said.
“The MILF has met with businessmen in Makati and civil society and they say that their agenda is no longer to separate from the Republic of the Philippines. Their proposal is that they be considered Filipino citizens but with Bangsamoro national identity,” he said.
He said there was “no international law or domestic law implication of the government meeting with a group that it wants seriously to have peace with.”
Anywhere in the world
“Besides, in the history of the entire world, heads of states do go on vacation in other countries. And they do unofficial visits. And that is not considered an acknowledgement of anything. The President took an unofficial trip to Japan and met with a Filipino there, a group of Filipinos there,” he added.
Asked why the meeting had to be in Japan, Leonen said: “The President will meet any Filipino anywhere in the world, in the planet, especially if he is serious enough to talk about an agenda, which is important to the country.”
“It could not be held while there is media outside because this is the first historic meeting between the President and the chair of the MILF. (Imagine) what would have happened if they did not end up in a cordial manner, which they did,” Leonen said.
Int’l contact group
“The meeting was very cordial. I was in the room. I was the note-taker and I saw there was a certain chemistry between the chair of the MILF and the President,” Leonen added.
He said Japan was chosen for security reasons and because it is the closest member of the International Contact Group, a grouping of nations that is attempting to promote trust between the two sides. The other members are Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Britain.
He said the MILF wanted the meeting to take place in one of the contact group countries.
Leonen said Mr. Aquino arrived in Tokyo at 6 p.m. on Thursday night and the meeting started at 8:30 p.m. He left Tokyo for home at 10 a.m. Friday.
The trip was left out of the Palace media advisory of the President’s schedule for Thursday. Its advisory that day only included “private meetings” with the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process, and the budget and management and finance departments.
The media was also advised of a “staff meeting” at 4 p.m.
Mr. Aquino’s party consisted of Deles, Leonen, Budget Secretary Florencio Abad, Finance Secretary Cesar Purisima, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin, National Security Adviser Cesar Garcia and presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda.
Murad was joined by some members of the rebel group’s central committee, members of its negotiating panel and some “base commanders.”
Leonen said the next formal meeting between the government and the MILF peace panels would be from August 22 to August 24.
The President’s meeting with the MILF rebel chief drew reactions, both positive and negative, from both sides of the political divide.
Even one of the President’s closest allies, Senator Francis Escudero, found reason to question the propriety of the President secretly meeting with Murad.
“I think the President may have been ill-advised to meet personally as he (Murad) is not even his counterpart. And it might not be a good tactic in the negotiations,” he said.
He said Deles should “protect the President from such things.”
“She should just do her job and give her President deniability with respect to this early stage of the negotiations,” Escudero said.
House Minority Leader Edcel Lagman on Friday said that Mr. Aquino broke his own promise of full transparency and took unnecessary risks without any tangible gains in meeting with the MILF leader.
“The country is not the personal fiefdom of President Aquino. Any presidential move which has a bearing on national interest and national security must be transparent and discussed with the Cabinet and the National Security Council. The President’s secret trip to Japan to meet MILF leaders violates his avowed policy on transparency,” said Lagman in a phone interview.
Lagman questioned the urgency or necessity of having the President himself meet with Murad.
“Can’t the President send an emissary instead of he himself going? There is more than meets the eye in the President’s excursion. He has much explaining to do. Such as what has he achieved, what are the commitments?” said Lagman.
Lagman said the President also took unnecessary risks in his meeting the MILF leaders. “If something happened to him there, what would happen to our country? He is the President, that should be foremost in his mind,” he said.
But House Majority Leader Neptali Gonzales II said: “If it will lead to real and lasting peace, I fully support P-Noy.”
Senator Francis Pangilinan welcomed the move as “an out-of-the-box solution” that showed the President was willing to step out of his comfort zone to ensure that peace is achieved.
Senator Loren Legarda, chair of the Senate foreign relations committee, said “pass” to mean no comment for now.
Philippine peace process gaining headway
By Ben Cal
Upon assuming office a year ago, President Benigno S. Aquino III declared that the government was ready to resume peace talks with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the Communist National Democratic Front (NDF) without pre-condition and repeated it in his first State-of-the-Nation Address (SONA).
The never-give-up policy of the government in the peace process is paying off.
The MILF and the NDF welcomed the announcement of the President that set the stage for resuming formal peace talks to end the 40-year insurgency war in the country.
During the resumption of formal negotiations between the government and the NDF in Oslo, Norway on Feb.15-21, 2011, both sides expressed optimism that a peace pact would be signed in 2012. Another round of negotiations was held last April.
The Royal Government of Norway is the third-party facilitator in the negotiations between the Philippine government and the NDF.
“The return to the formal peace table and our accomplishments during this first round of talks are indications of the desire of both parties to work together in resolving our differences and finally bring about peace, development, an end to poverty, and the restoration of justice, decency and civility in our land,” Alexander Padilla, chair of the government peace panel, said in a statement.
Padilla said the Philippine government hopes a comprehensive agreement in socio-economic reforms would be signed in September 2011 to be followed by an accord on political and constitutional reforms in February 2012 and the end of hostilities and disposition of forces by June or August 2012.
The resumption of formal negotiations was preceded by informal talks in Hong Kong on December 1, 2010.
The New People’s Army (NPA), the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), has been fighting an insurgency war since 1969, Asia’s longest-running insurgency.
However, from a fighting force of 25,600 at its peak in 1986, the NPA’s strength has dwindled to over 4,000 as of December 2010 as result of combat casualties and mass surrender over the years.
Talks during the past 25 years had been off and on, the last of which in August 2005 when the NDF pulled out from the negotiating table after the United States and the European Union (EU) had tagged the NDF as a terrorist organization.
However, back-channeling efforts continued during the period to keep the doors open for the resumption of formal talks.
The Oslo talks were “frank, candid and held in the spirit of goodwill characterized by respect for one another’s position,” Padilla said.
Although the government and the NDF agreed to have a ceasefire during the entire duration of the talks, both sides reported alleged violations of the truce.
During the talks in Oslo, Padilla found that the two panels were “on the zigzag path to peace… we have taken the first step.”
“We hope to have laid the groundwork for a just and lasting peace within the first three years of the Aquino administration,” he said.
It was during the Oslo talks that the government peace panel raised the issue of the so-called revolutionary tax.
Padilla also said the terror tag on the NPA would not be a hindrance to the talks because it was the US that made the tag and the Philippine government had no jurisdiction over it.
With regard to the negotiations between the government and the MILF, a breakthrough may be in the offing following the pronouncement by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) that it is no longer demanding an independent state.
A total 24 consultations with various sectors had been conducted the past few months that elicited “frank and candid exchange of hopes and aspirations, ideals and pragmatic results, ideas and approaches that can help validate our position on countless issues,” said Marvic Leonen, chairman of the government peace panel talking with the MILF.
“We have no illusions that our own requirements for consultation will be easy. But if we are to truly learn from the mistakes of the past, we do need to have the patience to deliberately seek out many groups, receiving and discussing their sentiments in many different types of forums, many times clarifying perspectives. Of course, we do not seek universal consensus. What we are trying to achieve after all is a political settlement which should embody what we in government can deliver,” he added.
Leonen lauded the MILF’s decision to conduct consultations with non-Moro groups, including indigenous peoples and business groups.
“This decision to come out publicly with the contours of your proposed Comprehensive Compact should cause a national discussion on a national issue: how to solve the Bangsamoro problem. It can complement our efforts. It will also help us --and our direct principal-- to gauge the public pulse on political decisions that need to be taken. Your consultations are complementary to ours,” he said.
Leonen revealed the results of extensive consultations with Indigenous Peoples by the Mindanao Peace Caucus.
“We are making this paper available to the parties as a non-paper. To us, a non-paper is a document which may be of direct relevance to the negotiations. It may contain ideas authored by them or by some other third party or groups of parties but does not necessarily reflect the current position of either the GPH or the MILF. We invite our counterparts to study it closely as an aid to understanding what some organized groups of Indigenous Peoples expect from these negotiations,” he said.
“Second, there were suggestions made that we do joint forums. We feel that this is a good idea at some point in the negotiations perhaps, when we (and our principals) achieve some clarity in our fundamental agreements and right before we mutually make the final commitments. I understand that there is precedent for this in these negotiations as there was some form of joint advocacy group in the past. We will take this up again in future negotiations.
“Third, so that we can more easily communicate progress in these negotiations to our public, we are requesting that our panel be allowed to have a maximum of four observers apart from our panel and our secretariat."
The observers may be members of our advisory committee or key members of Congress or even individuals who we need to consult time and again.
Also invited are personalities who sit in the other tables that the GPH has set up, i.e. the talks on the implementation of the Final Peace Agreement with the MNLF. The observers will be here only to watch the progress of the discussion (inclusive of all its passion) in real time.
“They will come at our own cost and they need not join all the agenda items. Who will sit as observers will be up to our panel to decide. To us, this will hasten consensus building. We have raised this already as part of the pre-meeting and there was some sort of consensus.
“Most of these related matters can be easily disposed of if the MILF reconsiders its current position not to table for discussion our earlier proposal to convene a technical working group that will meet in between our meetings to work on these administrative matters. As we have indicated in the past, an articulated and written Agreement on the Conduct of Talks will not only clarify how we work in the framework of these negotiations. It will also help us communicate to our constituencies the ground rules in the negotiation. We have made all of our agreements public. It was made possible because all of them were articulated and written. The only exception to this is what remains in oral tradition: the conduct of our talks,” Leonen said.
The past 11 months have seen several breakthroughs in the peace process, despite some snags experienced at the beginning of the Aquino administration.
The government was able to put the peace process back on track with the revival of the negotiations with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the Communist Party of the Philippines-New People’s Army-National Democratic Front of the Philippines (CPP-NPA-NDFP) during the first quarter of 2011.
Peace process with groups that have existing agreements with the Government of the Philippines (GPH) has likewise made headway.
The Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the GPH have been fast-tracking the full implementation of the 1996 Final Peace Agreement based on the consensus reached under the Tripartite Review.
The Cordillera Bodong Administration-Cordillera People’s Liberation (CBA-CPLA), on the other hand, is on its way to closing the Mt. Data Peace Accord with the GPH with an end view of transforming the armed group into a potent, socio-economic, unarmed force, and working toward the disposition of arms and forces of their members.
On the complementary track to address the roots of armed conflict, the government has been pursuing implementation of flagship program Payapa at Masaganang Pamayanan (Peaceful and Resilient Communities) or PAMANA in conflict-affected areas.
The reconstitution of the GPH Peace Panel during the third quarter of last year officially signalled the government’s readiness to resume talks with the MILF in the face of standing issues that confronted the process regarding facilitation.
The government peace panel remained resolute to restart the negotiations with the Moro group.
On February 9 and 10, the GPH and the MILF finally held their 20th Formal Exploratory Talks in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia wherein they agreed to renew the mandates of the International Monitoring Team (IMT) and the Ad Hoc Joint Action Group (AHJAG) for another 12 months.
This was followed by the 21st Formal Exploratory Talks last April 27 and 28 in which the GPH Panel was able to get clarifications on some points regarding the MILF’s proposed revised Comprehensive Compact, as well as clarification from the Moro group that Ustadz Amiril Umra Kato is still part of their group and is considered an internal problem with assurances that the MILF commander will respect the peace negotiations.
Adhering to President Aquino’s policy of transparency and inclusivity in the peace process, the panel has been conducting consultations with various sectors in hopes of knowing the pulse of the stakeholders and incorporating their inputs in drafting the government’s counter-proposal to be presented to the MILF in the next round of talks scheduled on June 27 and 28 in Kuala Lumpur.
As peace negotiations between the GPH and the MILF picked up once again, the conflict situation on the ground has remained stable, according to the government Coordinating Committee on the Cessation of Hostilities (CCCH). The number of armed clashes between the government and MILF forces dropped to 14 in 2010 while there is zero recorded skirmish from January 2011 to date.
On the other hand, the NDF welcomed the release of its consultants Vicente Ladlad and Elizabeth Principe as a measure of goodwill.
The NDF reciprocated by also releasing retired Sgt. Mario Veluz, PO3 Jorge Sabatin and PO2 Jervel Tugade from their custody..
In an effort to bring in the voice of the stakeholders in the negotiating table, the GPH Panel through the Reciprocal Working Committee (RWC) has been consulting different sectors, especially the marginalized ones, on drafting the Comprehensive Agreement on Socio-economic Reforms (CASER) with the CPP-NPA-NDF.
On the side, monitoring of the implementation of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law (CARHRIHL) continued through the activities of the GPH Monitoring Committee such as complaints monitoring and review, and follow-up on GPH agencies’ action on complaints endorsed to them, coordinative work on the local monitoring bodies and education, information and networking on CARHRIHL.
GPH-MNLF Peace Process is moving toward full implementation of the 1996 FPA
The full implementation of all provisions of the 14-year-old Final Peace Agreement (FPA) between the GPH and the MNLF is being fast-tracked with both parties mutually accomplishing many tasks.
Over the course of 22 months, the Legal Panels of the GPH and MNLF have worked on the 25 common proposals of the five Joint Working Groups and 15 common grounds originating from the Legal Panel process. These were transformed by the Joint Secretariat into a draft Amendatory Bill for Republic Act (RA) 9054, the law that created the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), to make it more reflective of the sentiments of the Bangsamoro people.
During the 4th session of the Tripartite Meeting between the GPH, MNLF and the Organization of Islamic Conference-Peace Committee for Southern Philippines (OIC-PCSP) held last February 22-23 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, the Joint Legal Panel initialled an agreement setting up a Tripartite Implementation Monitoring Committee (TIMC) that intends to monitor the implementation of all the agreements reached under the Tripartite Implementation Review of the 1996 FPA.
Likewise, they agreed to establish the Bangsamoro Development Assistance Fund (BDAF) that aims to pursue socio-economic development in southern Philippines.
After simultaneous sessions from April 25 to 29, the GPH and MNLF Expert Working Groups have reached an agreement on the draft terms of reference (TOR) of the BDAF and the TIMC in which the scope, functions and structure, among others have been settled.
The pathway to peace is not only a long and winding road but also full of loopholes and dangers but the Aquino government is pursuing the peace process with more intensity until peace accords with the MILF and NDF would be signed.
A two-pronged insurgency has been hounding the country for over four decades that had claimed some 200,000 lives and tens of thousands wounded, and the destruction of crops and infrastructure costing billions of pesos.
The rebuilding and rehabilitation of which could have been used for economic development to eradicate poverty in the country.