MILF rebels ready to lay down arms

By Jose Rodel Clapano, The Philippine Star

Posted at Jan 25 2014 01:58 AM | Updated as of Jan 25 2014 09:58 AM

MANILA, Philippines - The government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front moved closer to signing the final annex of the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro in Malaysia yesterday, with the MILF saying it would become a "social, more democratic force that shuns the use of arms" once a final peace deal is signed.

The plan is for the MILF to turn over its weapons to a third party rather than the Philippine government.

Being discussed in Kuala Lumpur are the normalization annex and the addendum on the Bangsamoro maritime jurisdiction.

MILF chief negotiator Mohagher Iqbal told GMA news that something significant might happen this weekend.

Government peace panel chairman Miriam Coronel-Ferrer, for her part, announced they would complete their negotiations on the annex on normalization.

She stressed the peace deal should bring about “real-life changes” in people’s lives.

“In this round of negotiations, the (Philippine government) and the MILF peace panels aim to complete the annex on normalization and the addendum on Bangsamoro waters – the last documents to be signed in order to complete the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro,” Ferrer said.

She said the agreement should translate into positive changes in the lives of the people in the Bangsamoro and the rest of the country.

The Annex on Normalization will detail the process by which MILF combatants and their communities can return to peaceful conditions.

The Addendum on Bangsamoro Waters, on the other hand, will outline the delineation of territorial waters that will be governed by the Bangsamoro entity as well as arrangements outside the region’s maritime limits.

The Bangsamoro Waters would be governed on the principles of protecting traditional fishing grounds, benefiting from its resources and interconnectivity of the islands and the mainland parts for a cohesive political entity.

Iqbal, however, intimated to GMA News that there would be no surrender of arms by the MILF. Instead, the firearms will be under the custody of a third party, as proposed under the normalization annex.

Iqbal stressed that if all the documents are signed, the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro will follow.

Ferrer, for her part, stressed that both sides are “burdened with great expectations” from the public.

“These include ending violent conflicts in Mindanao involving various armed groups, and bringing about meaningful autonomy through the new set of institutions in the Bangsamoro region,” she said.

To meet these expectations, Ferrer stressed the need to put the right people and appropriate mechanisms in place, the benchmarks on which to measure progress, and the protocols that will guide their actions, and discipline among the ranks.

According to Ferrer, the topic of normalization itself is a very contentious issue because of socio-economic, transitional justice, reconciliation and security aspects.

“The security aspect alone is made up of several elements: disbandment of private armed groups, decommissioning of MILF combatants and weapons, redeployment of the AFP from or within the Bangsamoro as the security situation improves, halt to the proliferation of loose firearms and transitional security arrangements that will see the Armed Forces of the Philippines, the Philippine National Police and the Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces collaboratively keeping the peace on the ground,” she said.

Ferrer revealed the progress of the negotiations in Kuala Lumpur.

“The many pages of the texts that we have initialed and will be initialing soon will have to come alive in the form of real-life changes,” Ferrer said.

She stressed this is the right moment to conclude the formal exploratory talks with the MILF.

“Let us enable ourselves to move forward 100 percent to the next stage of implementation,” she added.

Underscoring the crucial role of all Mindanao stakeholders in the peace process, Ferrer also called for efforts to strengthen collaboration among the Bangsamoro people and indigenous groups in pushing for lasting peace in Mindanao.

Iqbal, however, expressed guarded optimism that despite the achievements of both parties, “the final destination of this journey of peace is not within immediate reach yet.”

“We may be able to sign the Comprehensive Peace Agreement soon as we wish, but that is not the end of the odyssey,” Iqbal said.

He said the negotiations would be formally terminated if both parties satisfactorily comply with the deal and sign an exit agreement.

“It is not far-fetched that during this five-day session, we will be able to settle all the remaining outstanding issues on the Bangsamoro Waters and Annex on Normalization,” he said.

Iqbal said both parties remained reasonable during the talks.

He said the parties have been committed to balance history with reality in taking cognizance of their roots.

Support needed

Ferrer welcomed the support of lawmakers who attended the peace negotiations in Kuala Lumpur.

She said the lawmakers are welcome to observe the process since they are tasked to legislate the Bangsamoro Basic Law.

“It’s the entire Congress who will pass the Bangsamoro Basic Law, so we need the support of all the legislators to help us see through the full implementation of the agreement,” Ferrer said.

Sen. Aquilino Pimentel III and Zamboanga City Rep. Lilia Nuño arrived in the Malaysian capital city ahead of other legislators to witness the ongoing 43rd Formal Exploratory Talks.

Ferrer underscored the importance of legislators to be present in the round of negotiations to allow them to gain deeper understanding of the process.

Pimentel reminded negotiators to be cautious of their commitment.

“Do not over-promise because Congress has to enact a law that should be constitutional,” he said.

Pimentel expressed optimism that should the agreement be signed by both parties, Congress will have sufficient time to enact the Bangsamoro Basic Law.

Presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda also arrived in Kuala Lumpur along with Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process Teresita Deles.

Lacierda went as an observer to the talks. “Compared with the previous discussions and talks, this one is in a good mood,” he said.

Deles, for her part, explained the Annex on Normalization is a feature that was not part of previous peace agreements.

She said the annex is envisioned to make sure that no incident similar to the Zamboanga City siege in September 2013 by the Moro National Liberation Front rebels occurs.

MNLF chairman Nur Misuari said the invitation of the government for him to join the talks in Kuala Lumpur is “ridiculous.”

In a statement, Misuari pointed out the government has issued a warrant of arrest against him, accusing him of leading the Zamboanga City siege.

“If P-Noy (President Aquino) is sincere, (he) must first drop these criminal cases or give me a valid passport and a fool-proof safe conduct pass to and from the venue where said ‘MILF-Bangsamoro Basic Law’ is to be crafted.

“And certainly that venue cannot be Malaysia but Indonesia or Saudi Arabia,” he added.

Misuari said President Aquino should explain how the Bangsamoro Basic Law would affect the Philippines’ claim over Sabah.

Misuari has opposed the talks with MILF, believing this would sideline the MNLF peace agreement with the Philippine government in 1996.

Nuño, for her part, believed the final peace agreement with the MILF will bring lasting peace and will benefit the rest of Mindanao.

Nuño was convinced and optimistic on how the government peace panel worked with its counterpart in the MILF in representing the position of the people.

“I am very happy I was invited because I have seen how the peace panel has been working. I see that this will bring lasting peace to Mindanao,” she said.

As a lawmaker witnessing the negotiations, Nuño said the experience would guide her in the legislation of the Bangsamoro Basic Law.

While she stressed that Zamboanga City is outside the proposed Bangsamoro territory, Nuño said the city could benefit from the peace agreement since it is located near the island provinces of Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi, part of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), including the mainland provinces of Lanao del Sur and Maguindanao.

The Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro, signed on Oct. 15, 2012, envisioned the creation of the Bangsamoro government that will replace the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao in 2016.

The Bangsamoro Basic Law is currently being drafted by the Bangsamoro Transition Commission, a body created by the government and the MILF.

Once Congress approves the basic law, it will be ratified through a plebiscite by the people in the proposed Bangsamoro territory. – Roel Pareño