Talks between Philippine government and Moro Islamic Liberation Front deadlocked

Manila (Philippine Daily Inquirer/ANN) - Peace talks between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) have reached deadlock, but leaders of the secessionist group are urging their ground commanders to be patient to avoid a resurgence of violence in Mindanao.

"It's a stalemate," MILF chief negotiator Mohagher Iqbal told the Inquirer by phone Saturday when asked how he would describe the current status of the negotiations.

On Friday, Ghadzali Jaafar, MILF vice chairman for political affairs, told reporters that the group was "frustrated" at the slow progress of the negotiations and that the ground commanders had started to lose faith that the four-decade-long Bangsamoro insurgency would be resolved peacefully.

Jaafar said the MILF had informed the government about how his group felt through the Malaysian facilitator of the negotiations, Datuk Abdul Ghafar Tengku.

Responding for the government yesterday, Interior Secretary Mar Roxas said ending the MILF insurgency remained a top priority of President Aquino.

Roxas said Aquino met last week with his Cabinet officials involved in the peace process.

"Many of the items have generational and very broad implications, and accordingly, 'unintended consequences' are not good. Thus, P-Noy (the President's nickname) is exercising due care and utmost diligence on these matters," Roxas said, referring to wealth and power sharing, and normalization, the last three unresolved points in the annexes to the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro signed by the government and MILF last year.

The MILF's frustration stems from the delay in the conclusion of a final peace agreement, which appeared to be "deliberate," according to Jaafar.

MILF ground commanders "are angry because they have been waiting for a long time," Jaafar said. "As far as I am concerned, this is not a very good situation."

Prevent fighting

Iqbal said on Saturday the MILF leadership was talking with the ground commanders, "telling them to be patient."

"We should not be rash," Iqbal said in Filipino. "We're telling them that we should manage our frustrations. Our hope is that we will be able to prevent fighting from erupting again."

Sought for comment on Iqbal's statement that the talks have reached a stalemate, government chief negotiator Miriam Coronel-Ferrer told the Inquirer in a text message: "The [Malaysian] facilitator is on board; channels are open in order for us to discuss and settle contentious issues."

But for Iqbal, the recent exchange of notes between the two peace panels through Datu Tengku does not translate to progress in the talks.

The panels last met in Kuala Lumpur in April, but they only signed guidelines for the Mindanao sociodevelopment program called Sajahatra Bangsamoro.

"There is an exchange of notes but we don't see it working. Nothing will happen with the exchange of notes. The government is diluting the initialed wealth sharing annex. It is downgrading [the annex]," Iqbal said.

He emphasized that the MILF will not agree to any changes to the annex that the government might propose.

Stick to it

Ferrer said earlier that the government was only exercising prudence with President Aquino's review of the wealth sharing annex, but for Iqbal, the panels should "focus on what has been initialed."

"The government is changing its position. How can we be sure that it won't do the same with the two other annexes (power sharing and normalization)?" Iqbal said.

Iqbal stressed that "time is running out" on the peace negotiations.

The MILF earlier said that a peace agreement with the government must be sealed before President Aquino's term ends in 2016.

Stretching the negotiations beyond that date would jeopardize the chances of having lasting peace in Mindanao, the MILF said.

Any delay in the peace talks could lead to a resumption of fighting in Mindanao, it said.

Bangsamoro law

The Transition Commission, which will write the Bangsamoro legislation, has been convened, but it needs the annexes to the framework agreement to be able to put together the bill and submit it to Congress.

Sen. Francis Escudero, an ally of President Aquino, said Satruday that the Bangsamoro law must conform to the framework agreement, so it must not be rushed despite its urgency.

"It's an urgent matter, but it must be done right this time," Escudero said in a text message

Sen. Franklin Drilon, who is expected to be the next Senate president, said in a recent interview that the Bangsamoro law was among the priorities of the 16th Congress.

He said Congress needs to amend the charter of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) to make it conform to the Bangsamoro framework agreement.

But "how the framework agreement will come up with the annexes, we still do not know," he said.

The Bangsamoro will replace the ARMM, which President Aquino described as a "failed experiment," as it did not end the Mindanao conflict.

Aquino's communications secretary, Ricky Carandang, said in a text message that the administration was doing its best to iron out the differences between the government and the MILF.

Carandang, however, declined to disclose the MILF position and the government's proposed amendments to the annexes, saying the talks had reached a "sensitive phase."

Deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte, speaking on state-run radio on Saturday, said Philippine Palace found nothing wrong with the two sides missing the target date for signing a final peace agreement.

Both sides, she said, need more time to thresh out the annexes on wealth and power sharing, and normalization, which she described as "sensitive" issues.

"We're hoping to see a resolution to this and we're hoping to find a way to move forward the last three annexes," Valte said.

With a report from Norman Bordadora

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