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Philippine govt, Moro group seal accord

Publication Date : 26-01-2014

 

Deal to end 4 decades of fighting in southern Philippines

 

After four presidents and 17 years, the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) completed an agreement in Kuala Lumpur on Saturday to end four decades of fighting in central Mindanao that has killed tens of thousands of people and helped foster Islamic extremism in Southeast Asia.

Government and MILF negotiators signed the normalisation annex, the last of four documents that make up a comprehensive peace agreement.

At the heart of the last document is the deactivation of the MILF fighting force of 11,000 and the laying down of their weapons.

Officials from both sides announced the conclusion of the deal on the fourth day of the talks, which were brokered by Malaysia.

The government and the MILF peace panels had already signed the annexes on power-sharing, wealth-sharing and transitional arrangements.

It took them 15 months since the signing of the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro in October 2012 to complete the four annexes.
The framework agreement is the blueprint for the final peace agreement.

Government negotiators, some teary-eyed, embraced each other after the conclusion of the talks. Chief government negotiator Miriam Coronel-Ferrer hailed the progress and said “good luck to everyone on the next stage, the implementation stage”.

“This will give the just and lasting peace that our brothers in Mindanao are seeking,” presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda told reporters.

Paying for peace

Chief MILF negotiator Mohagher Iqbal called the last hurdle the “most sensitive” and “emotional”, and said it entailed “a lot of sacrifice on the part of the MILF”.

“To pay for real peace in Mindanao, we have to decommission our forces and put them beyond use,” Iqbal said.

“This is more for my people. I am just incidental as I happen to be the chair of the negotiating panel. Everything is dedicated to my people,” Iqbal said.

Asked when the comprehensive agreement would be signed, Iqbal said: “Everybody and I want it very soon. Even tomorrow. But as to the venue, we have not yet discussed it.”

Ferrer said the signing of the normalisation annex marked “the beginning of the end of the process, which is the formal negotiations.”
She said there would be “some more finishing touches that would be necessary of the bigger challenge ahead, which is the bigger challenge of implementation.”

Iqbal and Ferrer signed the normalisation annex and the Bangsamoro waters addendum to the power-sharing annex at around 6pm here.

The signing was witnessed by Malaysian facilitator Tengku Dato’ Ab Ghafar Tengku Mohamed, the members of the peace panels, the International Contact Group, legislators and other government officials.

“I am very proud to be part of the process. I witnessed the 1986 People Power (Revolution) and now I am part of the process of a very classic peace process. I am very proud of it,” Tengku said.

Cory Aquino’s birthday
Before the signing, some observers noted the significance of the day that the normalisation annex was signed: the 81st birthday of former President Corazon Aquino.

The late president, mother of incumbent President Benigno Aquino III, had been credited for initiating the peace talks with Moro rebels waging a secessionist movement against the government, starting with the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF).

The peace agreement with the MILF is one of the cornerstones of the current Aquino administration.

The long-drawn strife in Central Mindanao has left the region mired in poverty, displaced thousands and claimed the lives of hundreds of civilians, soldiers, and rebels.

Ferrer, Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process Teresita “Ging” Deles, and government panel member Yasmin Busran-Lao were seen holding back tears when the government panel announced that they had reached an agreement with the MILF panel at around 4:45pm.
The MILF panel members smiled throughout the signing of the annex and the additional power-sharing document.

“If they would ask what would be the defining legacy of the Aquino administration, this is it. It is the peace agreement with the MILF,” said Lacierda, who witnessed the signing of the documents.

Lacierda said Deles informed President Aquino of the developments here, and the President sent a text message congratulating all of them.

Iqbal said specific provisions on the decommissioning of the MILF firearms would be threshed out with the International Decommissioning Body (IDB).

Details of the deactivation are not included in the normalisation annex scheduled to be released by the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (OPAPP) late Saturday.

“As to the number of combatants who are involved in the decommissioning process, it is part of the validation that will be undertaken by the independent decommissioning body. We have not yet discussed that figure,” Iqbal said.

Iqbal made it clear that the normalisation annex does not mean that the MILF is surrendering to the government or that its firearms will be destroyed.

Sources told the Inquirer that among the contentious issues is the percentage of firearms that the MILF will decommission in four tranches before the end of President Aquino’s term in 2016.

“There has to be a balance between goodwill and security,” one of the sources explained.

Military redeployment
 
Under the agreement, military presence in the proposed Bangsamoro autonomous region would be restricted in exchange for the laying down of MILF arms.

The government would have to redeploy its troops out of the region, which would replace the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).

Another source privy to the talks earlier told the Inquirer that the MILF wanted to ensure that the Bangsamoro would be free from private armed groups, terrorists, and other threat groups when it decommissions its firearms.

“It’s a very tall order. It cannot be done in one sweeping move. Both sides are really pressured. The MILF wants to decommission provided there would be a level playing field … because they are the ones who will be left in the area once the government redeploys its troops,” the source said.

The next stage of the peace process is the drafting of the Bangsamoro basic law by the Bangsamoro Transition Commission, which Iqbal also chairs.

Iqbal said the commission was “running out of time” and wanted to complete the draft soonest and submit it to President Aquino for approval.

Aquino has vowed to certify the bill as urgent when he sends it to Congress.

A number of legislators, mostly from Mindanao, witnessed the signing of the normalisation annex and gave their assurance that they would support the enactment of the law in the House of Representatives and in the Senate.

BIFF to go on fighting
Despite the agreement, both the government and the MILF acknowledged that violence would not end overnight in Mindanao, which has long grappled with a volatile mix of crushing poverty, huge numbers of illegal firearms, clan wars and weak law enforcement.
One rebel group vowed to keep fighting.

“We will continue the struggle,” said Abu Misri, spokesperson for the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), which broke off from the MILF three years ago.

“What we want is an Islamic state, an Islamic people, an Islamic constitution,” Misri told The Associated Press by telephone Saturday.
Misry said the MILF made compromises to clinch a deal, but the BIFF doubted that the agreement would get congressional approval without further compromises.

He said the BIFF did not believe the agreement would be implemented during the term of President Aquino.

Rebels from another group, the MNLF faction led by Nur Misuari, took scores of hostages last September when they seized coastal communities in Zamboanga City after accusing the government of reneging on its commitments under a 1996 peace agreement.

Thousands of police and military troops ended the 10-day uprising with a major offensive that killed more than 200 people, most of them MNLF insurgents.

‘Political charade’
Misuari’s lawyer, Emmanuel Fontanilla, said Misuari’s group was happy for the MILF, but stressed that peace and development in Mindanao could be achieved only through independence.

“It is a political charade,” Fontanilla said, referring to the peace talks between the government and the MILF.

The MNLF faction led by Muslimin Sema said on Saturday it was not rejecting outright the peace accord with the MILF but stressed that it should not extinguish the 1996 peace agreement.

Enforce prior deals
“The MNLF has spoken. We do not reject outright any agreement to be reached by the [government] and the MILF. Our reluctance to recognise stands from the point of view that the 1996 final peace agreement is a final agreement for one people and one territory that has never reached culmination. It is still under review,” Sema, chair of the MNLF Committee of 15, told the Inquirer in a text message.

“We are firm that before another agreement is reached with another armed group, all prior agreements must first be fully implemented in letter and spirit. Our silence on any impending agreement is not our choice but is forced upon us spoilers,” Sema said.

“Nonetheless, if it has any significance at all, the [government] or even the MILF cannot lure us [into accepting] an agreement that completely annihilates our historic achievement in 1976 and in 1996. They can sign any agreement without charging us for the cost. If the government insists on MNLF participation, there should be a mechanism that will bind all parties to it,” he said.

Gov. Mujiv Hataman of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, which would be expanded under the MILF deal to give the Bangsamoro people broader autonomy, was glad that an agreement had been clinched.

Hataman said the regional government also worked hard to support the Bangsamoro framework deal and it would prepare for a successful transition.

Willing to sacrifice
“Since the signing of the Framework Agreement on Bangsamoro, the autonomous regional government has committed to offer its full support to the southern peace process,” Hataman said. “And as we promised, we are more than willing to sacrifice while we prepare the bureaucracy for a smooth transition of power to the new political setup.”

Hataman said his administration would submit to the provisions agreed upon by the government and the MILF “for we believe it is for the greater good.”

North Cotabato Gov. Emmylou Taliño-Mendoza commended the government and the MILF panels for clinching an angreement.
“Being in North Cotabato and in Mindanao, we echo their sentiments that the comprehensive agreement should translate into positive changes in the lives of the people in the Bangsamoro and the rest of the country,” Mendoza said. -- With reports from Julie Alipala, Inquirer Mindanao; and AP

 

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