Manila (Philippine Daily Inquirer/ANN) - The Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) have agreed to create a new autonomous political entity to replace the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), moving closer to a peace agreement that could bring development to the war-torn, impoverished Philippine south.
Speaking from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, a day after the government and the MILF concluded the 27th round of talks, government chief negotiator Marvic Leonen said on Wednesday that the two sides had signed a document that contained their "decision points on principles." Those points, he said, would guide discussions on the substantive agenda of the peace negotiations.
The signing of the document dispelled cynicism about the progress of the peace talks, Leonen said.
"As far as the government is concerned, these common points are commitments that can be properly accommodated by our current legal and political realities," Leonen said, reading from a prepared statement.
Among the issues the two sides agreed upon was the commitment to "work for the creation of an autonomous political entity in place of the ARMM," as both sides recognized that the "status quo is unacceptable."
The ARMM is composed of the provinces of Basilan, Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao, Shariff Kabunsuan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi. It is currently run by officer in charge Mujib Hattaman, appointed by President Benigno Aquino III last year when Congress passed a law that postponed the August 2011 regional elections to May 2013, to be held simultaneously with the midterm polls.
Speaking to reporters via Skype surrounded by his panel members, Leonen said replacing the ARMM with a new entity would require a law.
The government must convince Congress to pass such a law.
The new autonomous political entity "should improve on the experiences of the past," Leonen said, referring to President Aquino's insistence on reforms in the ARMM.
At present, he said the "contours" of the entity and how it will be put in place were still under discussion."
The chief negotiator acknowledged that right now the government and the MILF were "poles apart" when it comes to their respective positions on the geographic scope of the autonomous political entity.
For her part, Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process Teresita Deles, who attended the Palace briefing, called on people to support the process and give their inputs.
"It is very important that at the end of the day that whatever is signed has broad support from the public," Deles said.
Leonen said the two sides were talking about an autonomous political entity that would meet the requirements of the Constitution. How this could be done is still under discussion, he said.
Included in the 10-point agreement was that the autonomous political entity will have a ministerial form of government.
Asked how the talks would affect the ARMM elections scheduled for next year, Leonen said this was being discussed and that there were "various options on the table."
But if no peace agreement is signed before then, the regional elections will proceed.
Asked if the regional elections were a pressure on both sides to come to an agreement, Leonen said: "We are pressured to have an agreement because of the conditions in the area. We are pressured because we know that many people have died in this armed conflict for reasons that we can address on a negotiating table. We are not pressured because of this [election]."
Miriam Coronel-Ferrer, a member of the government panel, explained that the signing of a final peace agreement would "not automatically suspend the ARMM elections. Both sides would have to meet many requirements, because there were many requirements, including getting Congress to pass a law that would create a new autonomous political entity that would replace the ARMM.
The two camps are set to meet again next month.
The signed document contains 10 of what originally were 11 points of consensus reached by the parties December last year, including the grant of "genuine autonomy" for the Moro people.
The other points outlined in the document include guarantee of human rights; listing of powers reserved for the national government in relation to the autonomous setup; recognition of the need for power-sharing and wealth-sharing; commitment for continuity based on previous consensus in the already 15-year negotiations; and recognition of "Bangsamoro identity and the legitimate grievances and claims of the Bangsamoro people."
The "decision points" is the first major document of the negotiations signed under the Aquino administration. The document was supposedly inked last month but the MILF panel refused to sign it due to "annotations."
An MILF news release said the government panel "made four amendments that ... destroyed the essence of the document," which was prepared during the February meeting.
Because of the controversy over the annotation, a ranking MILF official told the Philippine Daily Inquirer, back-channel talks became necessary. Efforts by the facilitator, Dato Ab Ghafar Tengku Mohamed, culminated a day before the parties met in Kuala Lumpur for the official schedule on Tuesday.
"That was when the real meeting happened," the MILF official said.
"Both acknowledged the roles played by the facilitator and the International Contact Group in reaching this breakthrough," the parties said in a joint statement announcing the agreement. - With reports from Ryan Rosauro, Charlie Señase and Jeoffrey Maitem, Inquirer Mindanao