Only SC can stop deal now

RP, MILF set to sign pact in Malaysia

By Leila Salaverria, DJ Yap, Nikko Dizon, Christine Avendaño
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 01:45:00 08/04/2008

MANILA, Philippines—It’s all systems go for the signing on Tuesday of an agreement which critics say will pave the way for the creation of a new state out of a proposed expanded Bangsamoro homeland.

Foreign Secretary Alberto Romulo and his Malaysian counterpart Rais Yatim are expected to witness the signing in Kuala Lumpur of a memorandum of agreement (MOA) on ancestral domain between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

“It’s a go,” said President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s peace adviser, Hermogenes Esperon Jr., unless the Supreme Court issued a temporary restraining order, which some Mindanao officials were seeking.

“It’s all systems go for the signing of the agreement on Aug. 5,” MILF spokesperson Eid Kabalu also told Agence France Presse by phone from his base in Mindanao. “Our men on the ground want to see peace in Mindanao, and we have been talking for a long time already.”

Esperon, former chief of staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, said that after the signing, the government would launch an “all-out consultation” preparatory to the holding of a plebiscite in one year.

The MOA grants an expanded Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) its own basic law, an internal security force, a system of banking and finance, civil service, education and legislative institutions, full authority to develop and dispose of minerals and natural resources.

The government of the proposed MILF-controlled area would also have the power to send trade missions overseas and to enter into international arrangements, according to a draft of the agreement obtained by the Philippine Daily Inquirer (parent company of

Adel Tamano, spokesperson of the United Opposition, said that under the MOA, the President had “effectively ceded part of the territory of the Philippines to the MILF.”

Tamano cited Section 3 on concepts and principles of the MOA, which states that “ancestral domain does not form part of the Philippines’ public domain.”

“Obviously, GMA (Ms Arroyo) is not empowered to give up any part of our country to any group, only the Filipino people can do that in their sovereign capacity and only via amending the Constitution,” he said.

Declaration of independence

Tamano warned that the signing of the MOA would grant the MILF the “status of belligerency” and could open the door for a declaration of independence.

Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita dismissed claims that the MOA would violate the Constitution and constitute an impeachable offense against Ms Arroyo. He said the MOA was just one of three major undertakings in the peace agenda, the others being security and economic issues.

“There is no final agreement yet,” Ermita said in a phone interview.

The signing of the MOA will pave the way for the resumption of formal peace negotiations and from there, both panels will firm up a “comprehensive compact” of the final peace agreement, he said.

Referring to the petition in the Supreme Court seeking to stop the Kuala Lumpur signing, Esperon said government lawyers “will argue that the power of negotiations is with the executive branch.”

Enabling law required

Both Ermita and Esperon contended that the MOA was a “preliminary agreement” and pointed to provisions there stating that nothing would be executory unless there was a law enabling its implementation and everything must be done within the legal framework.
Ermita said this meant that any agreement between the government and the MILF had to be in accordance with the Constitution.

Both Ermita and Esperon stressed that the MOA called for the holding of a plebiscite in order to expand the Moro homeland.

“Any plebiscite will be pursuant only to an enabling law enacted by Congress,” Esperon said. “We are not giving away Mindanao.”

He also said the MOA only “defines the rights over the land” and thus, “it was not saying we will confiscate or revoke all land titles.”

Not impeachable

“That’s why I don’t see anyone can say that there is a violation and this would be an impeachable offense,” Ermita said, dismissing claims that the President was using the peace pact with the MILF to amend the Constitution so as to extend her term.

“I think we are extending our imagination too much,” said Ermita, who also expressed hopes that Congress would postpone the ARMM election scheduled for Aug. 11 as part of a “big confidence-building measure.”

Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez also said that the MOA would undergo “constitutional processes,” including the requirement of an enabling law before it could be implemented.

“If Congress will pass something else, then the MOA will not hold. It’s up to Congress,” he said. “There are no shortcuts being taken here.”

Gonzalez also branded as “inaccurate” the news reports that a new state would be created under the MOA on ancestral domain.

No deal on secession

“What’s being given is an enlarged autonomous region. Never in the discussions have we agreed to secession,” he said. “There is no such thing as peace at any price. But we will give a chance to peace because peace is better than shooting,” he said.

The proposed ancestral domain, to be governed by the Bangsamoro Juridical Entity (BJE), is the last remaining hurdle for a final political settlement that is expected to end the four decades-old insurgency that has claimed more than 120,000 lives. This would include plans for the future of the MILF’s 12,000 fighters, many of whom have said they will not disarm.

Esperon also dismissed suggestions that the MOA amounted to making the proposed Moro homeland a state.

“In the highest form, it could be a state within a state, if it comes to that,” Esperon said. But he added that only a constitutional amendment would allow this to happen if there was a shift to the federal form of government.

“But if our lawyers will say that the BJE will be under an expanded ARMM that will be enough, then we don’t have to have an amendment in the Constitution,” Esperon said.

Aside from the current ARMM provinces of Sulu, Maguindanao, Lanao del Sur, Tawi-Tawi and Basilan, and city of Marawi, the proposed Moro region would include six municipalities in Lanao del Norte and hundreds of barangays (villages) in Sultan Kudarat and North Cotabato, which voted to become part of the ARMM in 2001.

The proposed MOA also provides for the inclusion of the Bangsamoro’s “ancestral domain” in Mindanao, Palawan and Sulu.

Copies of the draft MOA were distributed to retired generals during a forum on July 24 in Camp Aguinaldo and made available to the Inquirer.

Shared authority

Under the MOA, the Philippine government and the BJE are to exercise “shared authority and responsibility” over the Bangsamoro homeland.

The details of the structure of shared governance will be defined in the “comprehensive compact.” A multinational third party will be jointly invited by the government and the BJE to observe and monitor the actual implementation of the “comprehensive compact.”

Peace negotiations between the government and the MILF have been stalled on the contentious issue of ancestral domain since December 2007.

Only on July 25, informal talks aimed at getting the peace negotiations back on track broke down in Kuala Lumpur, with the MILF panel accusing the other side of trying to “undo” provisions in the “breakthrough” agreement forged on July 16.

The MILF said the meeting had been intended to finalize the text of the draft agreement on ancestral domain, but that the government panel led by retired Maj. Gen. Rodolfo Garcia wanted certain settled issues reopened.

On July 27, the government and MILF panels led by Garcia and MILF’s Mohagher Iqbal, respectively, initialed the final draft of the agreement on ancestral domain, Malacañang said. With a report from Agence France-Presse

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