Talks resumed between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, last week to try to break the impasse over the establishment of an autonomous Bangsamoro homeland in Mindanao.
In the effort to give impetus to the talks, the Aquino administration last week appointed professor Miriam Coronel-Ferrer of the University of the Philippines as new chief government negotiator, replacing Marvic Leonen who had been appointed associate justice of the Supreme Court.
Ferrer is an old hand in the negotiations, having been on Leonen’s team since 2010. She cannot be faulted for want of experience and expertise in the Bangsamoro problem. But the talks are grappling with contentious issues.
First, the opposing panels are under pressure to conclude by the end of the year a comprehensive agreement on enduring peace in Mindanao to replace the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro, signed by the government and the MILF on Oct. 15.
While the government panel believes that the comprehensive pact could be completed according to the deadline, Mohagher Iqbal, MILF chief negotiator, is not as optimistic as the government.
“I don’t think we would be able to finish this year,” he said. “It’s quite difficult because there are many contentious issues.”
No easy solutions
These issues, as we shall see, do not lend themselves easily to instant solutions, such as appointing a new chief government negotiator, no matter how capable and skilled she is.
The completion of a peace agreement is tremendously important to the Aquino administration, which considers it a flagship achievement in the middle of the President’s term ahead of next year’s midterm elections.
The issues spring from the annexes of the framework agreement. The negotiations have bogged down on wealth- and power-sharing, normalization and modalities and arrangements that constitute the so-called road map for the implementation of the comprehensive peace agreement.
Ferrer told the Inquirer in an interview that the annex on modalities and arrangements included the mechanics, structures and generally the “whole process” of the peace agreement.
She admitted that these issues presented challenges to both the government and the MILF panels.
In summing up the progress of the talks since Oct. 15, Ferrer said in a talk with MindaNews on Nov. 7 that as of Nov. 6, only the section on “normalization” and “power-sharing” were marked out in bold print.
She said that after rounds of formal and informal talks, the two panels agreed in April on “Decision Points on Principles.”
The first of the points acknowledged a “core value” for the MILF. It stated: “Parties recognize the Bangsamoro identity and the legitimate grievances and claims of the Bangsamoro people.”
Ferrer said the rest of the document stated “that the status quo was unacceptable” and that the two parties will work for the creation of a new political entity (NPE) to replace the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, and that will have a ministerial form of government.
There will be a transition process, including third-party monitoring and power- and wealth-sharing between the NPE and the central government, with reserved powers like defense, foreign affairs and fiscal and monetary police reserved at the national level.
Ferrer noted that the document did not invite hostility after it had been published. After the submission of documents, the two panels concentrated on the issues involving transition, territory and normalization.
The issue of territory is among the most contentious. The comprehensive agreement has yet to define whether the territory of the NPE would be larger or smaller than that ceded to the MILF by then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain, which she was set to sign with the MILF when the Supreme Court struck it down as unconstitutional in 2008. The court found the document a flagrant act of “dismembering” the republic.
The Aquino administration cannot afford to repeat that mistake in the negotiations on the scope of the Bangsamoro territory.
In her presentation to MindaNews, titled “Peacetalk: The making of the Framework Agreement,” Ferrer clarified the issue of asymmetric relations between the central government and the NPE that led to controversial misunderstanding.
She cited the care that both sides took in crafting words, pointing out that “the same words will mean different things to different people.” Indeed, this has happened.
“To illustrate,” she said, University of the Philippines law professor Raul Pangalangan mistook the provision of the authority the Bangsamoro to receive “block grants and subsidies from the central government” as the power to block grants. Naturally, he wondered why they would even refuse manna.
“Indeed, even a grammatically upright sentence can be misread by transforming an adjective into a verb. ‘Block grants’ in the sentence refers to lump-sum funds for special programs or projects. It is a technical term used in finance and economics. It is not used here as a verb meaning ‘to refuse’ or ‘prevent.’”
Another word that has elicited concern, Ferrer said, is “asymmetrical” as used in, “The relationship of the central government with the Bangsamoro government shall be asymmetrical.”
Ferrer said: “Asymmetry is not a legal term. In lay language, it connotes unevenness. In our discipline in political science, there is ‘asymmetry’ when a territorial unit within a political system … enjoys a distinct or special status among themselves vis-à-vis the central government.”
On the other hand, “symmetry” is what characterizes the different states that make up the United States of America, she said. “The states enjoy the same status among themselves vis-à-vis the central government.”
For this reason, Ferrer said, the government panel “saw no serious constitutional issue in accepting the description it is a relationship that enhances the status of one part without diminishing the standing or sovereignty of the central over its parts.”
“In concrete terms, the President shall continue to have supervisory powers over the Bangsamoro and shall likewise have jurisdiction over major powers such as defense and foreign affairs, among others,” she said.