Aquino on KL talks: Knock on wood
Banking a little on superstition, President Benigno Aquino III knocked on a wooden table when asked if the normalization annex, the last of the four documents making up the blueprint for a final peace agreement between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), would be signed in the next few days.
“Knock on wood,” Mr. Aquino said, smiling, during an interview with the Inquirer on Wednesday.
“They tell me it could be this week. The executive secretary (Paquito Ochoa) was saying that [it would be signed] this week,” the President added.
Government and MILF negotiators are meeting in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in their 43rd round of exploratory talks, to hammer out the normalization annex.
Talks are rife that it will be signed on Sunday, taking the government and the MILF closer to forging lasting peace in central Mindanao, which has been mired in poverty for decades because of the conflict.
The normalization annex is one of the more complex documents to make up the peace deal because at its heart would be the disarming of the rebels.
But President Aquino is confident that the trust both government and the MILF leadership shared under his administration would see the annex through.
“The bottom line of all of that is trust,” Mr. Aquino said.
In Kuala Lumpur, MILF chief negotiator Mohagher Iqbal said he also expected the normalization annex to be signed on Sunday.
Iqbal told reporters that negotiations over the annex remained “very hard” but said he was optimistic about reaching an agreement with the government soon.
“Because when we are trying hard to climb a mountain, the peace is the most difficult to settle,” Iqbal said. “We are close and we are closing on the final point. I hope that [will] happen either tomorrow or the next day.”
Presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda, who is also in Kuala Lumpur, told reporters that there is “guarded optimism that … by this round the annex [will] be completed.”
“Everybody looks forward to this round of talks with hope. I can say that for someone who has observed the past three annex exploratory talks, this is light[er] than the other two,” Lacierda said, referring to the negotiations for the annexes on power-sharing and wealth-sharing.
While the laying down of arms has always been seen as a delicate matter, Lacierda said, the preparatory talks undertaken by the technical working group for the normalization annex tackled “a lot of issues,” leading to a smoother discussion and to the meeting of the government and the MILF negotiating panels.
A source privy to the talks told the Inquirer earlier that the normalization annex could be completed this week “if the government [would] give what the MILF want[ed].” The source did not elaborate.
Asked if the government was putting pressure on the MILF to complete the normalization annex in this round, Mr. Aquino told the Inquirer: “My understanding is they (MILF) also want to expedite the whole thing. Don’t forget that this is the first step. The next step is [to have] an organic law and then at which point they (Moro leaders) take over and from that to the May 2016 elections, the time that they could prove that they are a good thing to the Bangsamoro. If you delay the crafting of the law, there [will] be less time for that.”
The Bangsamoro Transition Commission, comprised of representatives from both the government and the MILF, wants to submit to President Aquino a proposed Bangsamoro basic law in April.
The Office of the President, in turn, will submit the bill to Congress for approval.
Mr. Aquino said he was confident that the Bangsamoro basic law would clear Congress.
“To me, it’s giving our best effort. I would like to think Luzon and the Visayas would agree to most of the provisions [of the law], if not all of the provisions. It’s like a demonstration that everyone really wants to get to a peaceful state,” he said.
In Kuala Lumpur on Friday, North Cotabato Rep. Jesus Sacdalan told the Inquirer that the continuing “high regard” of most legislators for the President would make for the smooth passage of the Bangsamoro basic law, despite allegations thrown at him by Senators Ramon “Bong” Revilla Jr. and Jinggoy Estrada.
“If the President certifies it as urgent, then it will be OK because of the strong party support for him,” Sacdalan said, noting Mr. Aquino’s “strong stand” on reaching a peace agreement with the MILF.
Sacdalan said the imputations of wrongdoing made last week by Revilla and last year by Estrada on Mr. Aquino would not even have a bearing on how the House of Representatives would vote on the bill.
“The high regard for the President remains,” said Sacdalan, vice chair of the House special committee on peace, reconciliation and unity.
Sacdalan is one of the legislators who traveled to Kuala Lumpur to observe the 43rd round of exploratory talks, touted to be the last in the peace negotiations between the government and the MILF.
Also in Kuala Lumpur are Sen. Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel III and Zamboanga City Rep. Lilia Nuño.
Expected to arrive on Saturday are the House deputy speaker for Mindanao, Lanao del Sur Rep. Pangalian Balindong, Maguindanao Rep. Zajid Mangudadatu, Ifugao Rep. Teddy Baguilat and Basilan Rep. Hadjiman “Jim” S. Hataman-Saliman.
Pimentel, whose family hails from Cagayan de Oro City, urged the peace negotiators “not to overpromise” in the peace agreement they were hammering out.
“Congress has to enact a law, which will be constitutional. So we should not overpromise. It is better to be honest, negotiate in good faith … be realistic, so that Congress can also do its part by enacting a law [that] will be clearly and on its face constitutional,” Pimentel told reporters.
Sacdalan said congressmen were expected to do serious consultations with stakeholders once the proposed Bangsamoro basic law is submitted to the House to avoid the mistake that happened with the Moro homeland deal under the Arroyo administration in 2008.
Sacdalan also said that the 1996 peace agreement with the Moro National Liberation Front should be incorporated into the Bangsamoro law, as abrogating it would be tantamount to a violation of the earlier deal.
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