POSTSCRIPT / July 9, 2013 / Tuesday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Palace-MILF talks: Whistling in the dark

‘PEACE TALKS’ KUNO: A handful of individuals claiming to represent two opposing factions are meeting behind closed doors in a foreign land (Malaysia) to decide the political destiny of the Republic of the Philippines and that of President Noynoy Aquino.

Throwing transparency out the window, the highlights of their political and economic haggling — mislabeled as “peace talks” — are never made known to the public.

The negotiating parties are (1) the panel of the secessionist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) claiming to represent the Muslim population and (2) the emissaries of President Aquino claiming to represent the tripartite national government.

The 10,000-strong MILF has not shown/validated its credentials as the true voice and representative of the five-million Muslim Filipinos. Neither has Malacañang seen to it that the talks were initiated with at least the Congress in its corner, forgetting that Malacañang is not the government.

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PRESSURE ON PALACE: On top of the agenda in Kuala Lumpur is wealth-sharing between the MILF and the national government. It is one of at least three contentious issues that President Aquino wants resolved before he steps down in June 2016.

Other issues, treated in annexes on power-sharing and the integration of MILF fighters, comprise the meat of the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro signed by Malacañang representatives and MILF negotiators in October last year.

Aware that the Palace is under pressure to finalize at least the wealth-sharing annex before the President’s State of the Nation Address (SONA) on July 22, the MILF is bent on maximizing its share of taxes and revenues from the exploitation of natural resources in their region.

To add pressure, Ghadzali Jaafar, MILF vice chairman for political affairs, accused Malacañang of foot-dragging on its promise to resume negotiations right after the May elections.

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CONSTITUTIONAL TRAP: In fairness, Malacañang wants the process expedited so one-term President Aquino can add “finally, peace in Mindanao” among his legacies.

However, the path is cluttered with the errors committed in the rush to glue together a pact creating a Bangsamoro to replace the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) established under an earlier agreement and the Constitution.

President Aquino is afraid of falling into the same legal trap that caught former President Gloria Arroyo. She had to hurriedly dump a similar Memorandum Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MoA-AD) with the MILF that was struck down by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional.

The legal question alone of dismembering the national territory by carving out a Bangsamoro sub-state for a secessionist group is alarming enough.

A breach of the Constitution could mean President Aquino’s impeachment, except that as of last count he had control over the House of Representatives and the Senate.

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BASIC LAPSES: Why the slow pace of the talks? The Palace is having a hard time correcting – with the necessary consent of the other party –the lapses in the process and documentation, including:

• The Executive embarked on the talks alone, without formally involving the Congress and other major shareholders, yet calls its team the “government” panel. Only now is it belatedly trying to involve senators and congressmen.

• By calling its panel the GRP (Government of the Republic of the Philippines), Malacañang gave the MILF a status of belligerency, sitting across the table as an equal to the rebels. The global implications on future engagements are immense.

• The Palace opened talks with the MILF without verifying its credentials as the authentic voice of Muslims. Now there are bothersome noises from its parent Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), the only Filipino rebel group recognized by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. There is already an MILF breakaway group, raising the specter of endless “peace” negotiations that might even outlive President Aquino.

• Despite the documented fact of Malaysia’s having operated to destabilize the Philippines, including the arming and training of Muslim rebels, Malacañang allowed it to influence the talks by hosting them in Kuala Lumpur and acting as an allegedly neutral facilitator.

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NOT FAIR, EQUITABLE: There is no word as to the maximum negotiating position of Malacañang and the MILF on the sharing of taxes and the wealth from natural resources in the projected Bangsamoro region.

Whatever final ratios emerge, they will not be fair and equitable — unless they also apply to the same degree in other regions. Why would one area, just because it is controlled by rebels, be treated more favorably than other areas?

In short, wealth-sharing should not be discussed and finalized in isolation and in secret. National wealth is a national concern. Resources that happen to be found in one region are not the exclusive treasury of that place.

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INCLUSIVE BOUNTY: In the same way that Muslim Filipinos share in the national wealth, whatever resources there are in their area must be shared as “inclusive bounty” with the rest of their countrymen.

In fact, if and when the time comes for the people’s ratification of the Bangsamoro Organic Act (assuming it is approved by the Congress), the plebiscite should be held not only in the Bangsamoro but throughout the Philippines — as the political and legal act affects all Filipinos.

The time has come for ethnic minorities to accept the fact that they belong to one nation, must assimilate themselves in the larger community and abide by the same Constitution.

An armed group boasting of foreign support and exhibiting the gall to threaten secession must be put in its proper place.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of July 9, 2013)

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