Gov’t-MILF peace talks to resume late March—negotiator

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08:23 AM March 14th, 2013

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By: Tarra Quismundo, March 14th, 2013 08:23 AM

MILF chief negotiator Mohagher Iqbal. FILE PHOTO

SULTAN KUDARAT, Philippines—The chief negotiator of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) said peace talks will resume this month even as he bared that “unscrupulous persons” were moving to delay the negotiations—purported attempts to stall the process by linking it to the crisis in Sabah.

Saying “the issue of peace is more important that the issue of war,” Mohagher Iqbal told reporters here that the MILF was “all systems go” for the resumption of talks in the last week of March, saying attempts to postpone the meeting would go nowhere.

“Right now, sad to say that there are some ideas—not really organized but they are ideas coming to us—that they are trying to postpone the forthcoming talks in Kuala Lumpur [set from] Mar. 25 to 27,” Iqbal said, addressing trainees at the Bangsamoro Leadership and Management Institute here Wednesday afternoon.

“This not yet organized call for postponement is anchored on the crisis in Sabah. They say that the crisis in Sabah affects the GPH-MILF negotiations. The position of the MILF is that it does not affect…because the issue in Sabah is security, whereas negotiations in Kuala Lumpur is a peace issue,” said the MILF chief negotiator.

Iqbal set aside the possibility of delay and is instead optimistic about the next round of talks that would bring the issues of wealth-sharing and power-sharing to the negotiating table.

“I do not imagine that it will (be postponed). For us, it’s all systems go. I don’t think it (Sabah) will be raised… It’s a non-issue. We will not discuss that,” Iqbal said.

“So our belief is that there’s no need to postpone the talks,” he added, citing “impressive” gains in the last round of talks.

The government earlier made public assurances that the Sabah standoff would not influence the progress of talks. The heirs of the Sultanate of Sulu said they launched a move to claim the Malaysian-controlled territory amid their exclusion from the peace talks.

The outlook of both panels and the international community on the process has been optimistic since last year’s signing of the framework agreement, an initial pact paving the way for the creation of a Bangsamoro juridical entity.

The MILF chief negotiator said “ideas” to postpone the talks first reached the MILF panel a week ago. He did not identify the source but said it did not come from the government side.

He said the “complicated” Sabah issue has “so many players” with many converging interests.

“I cannot name names in this point in time. It’s a sensitive issue. We’re receiving some ideas from some unscrupulous persons trying to tie up the negotiations with the Sabah standoff,” said Iqbal, on the sidelines of Japanese Ambassador Toshinao Urabe’s visit at the Japan-funded traning facility here.

“I told them this peace process is more important than what’s happening now in Sabah,” he said.

The Japanese Ambassador said MILF chairman Ebrahim Murad shared his concern over the possible impact of the Sabah standoff on the peace process during talks here Wednesday afternoon, his third time to visit the Moro leader.

Japan is closely involved in seeing the fruition of the Mindanao peace process, having representatives in both the International Monitoring Team (IMT) and the International Contact Group watching the GPH-MILF negotiations and implementing socio-economic programs for communities in conflict-affected areas.

The Japanese government is sending Iqbal and other MILF members on a study tour in Japan next week to meet with officials familiar with peace negotiations.

“Of course, we have discussed about the Sabah issue, and I think he shares the same concern that I have: how it will affect the peace process. And in that sense, I think both of us share the view that we have to observe the situation closely,” Urabe told reporters in a separate interview Wednesday night.

“But, as I explained, I think the chair and I are in agreement that the fundamental objective is peace and prosperity for the people,” the envoy said.

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