Friday, September 9, 2011

Malaysia’s difficult role in mediating Mindanao peace

MALAYSIA'S role as facilitator of peace talks between the Philippine government (GPH) and the rebel Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) for a homeland for Muslim Moros on Mindanao island may be about to get tricky again.

Recently resumed talks under the new Aquino administration has come to a screeching halt after the GPH peace panel finally put on the table late last month its "counter-proposals" to a draft agreement submitted earlier by the MILF.

The MILF panel was nonplussed by what its GPH counterpart presented and all but walked out of the talks in Kuala Lumpur. Now, word has come from MILF chief Murad Ebrahim that the MILF will not return to talks unless and until the gap between the two proposals is narrowed.

The MILF is apparently sticking to its guns that its offer of a Moro "sub-state" within the Philippine state is already a very significant climbdown from its earlier hardly-disguised separatist intent. The GPH, on the other hand, is countering with a more phased-in proposal centred on reforming the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), an arrangement hammered out by the earlier Aquino administration of Corazon Aquino which both the current Aquino administration and the MILF have agreed has failed.

The GPH also argues that the MILF's sub-state idea requires an amendment to the Philippine constitution, an understandably onerous process that the GPH says is not a priority precisely because a distinct lack of popular sympathy for the Moro cause within the wider Philippine public makes that a far-from-assured route to peace.

The MILF shoots back that President Benigno Aquino III must make some difficult choices between popularity and peace. It must be calculating that if there is one Philippine leader who can credibly surmount the popular antipathies towards a peace settlement acceptable to the MILF, it is the current president.

Not all hopes are lost, however. GPH panel head Marvic Leonen has put out conciliatory remarks that the GPH proposal is only its minimum starting point, in hopes of enticing the MILF back to negotiations.

But the MILF has not indicated that it is about to bite and has instead suggested that the Malaysian facilitator engage in a round of shuttle diplomacy between Manila and Mindanao so that existing differences can be sufficiently bridged before face-to-face peace talks resume anew.

Malaysia now needs to think very carefully about sending its facilitator over to the Philippines. We have been burned once when the previous facilitator, in his eagerness to forge agreement, ended up being accused by the GPH of bias in favour of the MILF.

Conditions must be right before Malaysia embarks on any shuttle diplomacy that may end up again with egg on our collective face about our bona fides as a neutral interlocutor.

Malaysia, above all, needs to make one thing very clear to both sides of the Mindanao dispute: unlike the involvement of the United States in the Arab-Israeli conflict, we cannot afford to let our involvement in the Mindanao peace process -- already well over a decade long -- to be interminably open-ended.

The history of US involvement in the Middle East peace efforts offers us another lesson: unless the US is prepared to be aggressively proactive in pushing and shoving both sides towards peace, it is unlikely to break out. This puts us in a real fix.

There is a popular undercurrent in the Philippines that imputes less than noble motives on our part towards a peace settlement.

Popular suspicions -- far-fetched as they are -- hold that our involvement in the peace process is somehow tied to our seeking an edge over the Philippines in the still unresolved territorial dispute over Sabah. This alone weakens our leverage over the GPH should a need again arise for us to nudge both antagonists along at sensitive stages of the peace negotiations.

The GPH now needs to be called to show clear political will to push for a just peace settlement. That call cannot be Malaysia's to make.

The MILF needs to solicit the help of member countries of the international contact group in the negotiations -- Turkey, Japan and Britain -- to seek to ascertain that Manila is sufficiently serious in wanting to make some painful concessions for the sake of peace, as the MILF already had.

Meantime, it may be best that Malaysia calls a time-out for a cooling-off in the heated peace negotiations. We should have already learnt our lesson: that we cannot be seen to be more eager than either of the peace antagonists for a final settlement. We will go the extra mile for peace's sake but only after having established that both antagonists are willing to go for same.
New Straits Times, Kuala Lumpur

Read more: A difficult role in mediating Mindanao peace

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