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Gov’t open to Cha-cha to win peace in South

August 17, 2010 01:07:00
Philippine Daily Inquirer

MANILA, Philippines—President Benigno Aquino III is open to Charter change (Cha-cha) to reach an elusive peace settlement with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) during his six-year term, his chief peace negotiator said Monday.

Mr. Aquino’s strong popularity could help him win support for an accord with the 11,000-strong MILF, in contrast to the Malaysian-brokered talks under his unpopular predecessor that collapsed in 2008, said Marvic Leonen, newly appointed head of the government peace panel that is to negotiate with the rebels.

In a news forum hosted by the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines (Focap), Leonen said a truce that had held in recent months had bolstered confidence ahead of peace talks set to resume next month.

“What we are bringing to the table is a hope that we can accomplish this (peace settlement) within the next six years, or much earlier,” said Leonen, dean of the University of the Philippines College of Law.

Leonen said the government was open to amending the Constitution to accommodate a comprehensive political accord with the MILF.

“If necessary, and when acceptable to all sides, then perhaps an amendment might be possible or fought for, but we’re not yet there. We’re just saying that we are open to talks,” Leonen said.

Asked by the Inquirer for confirmation of his statement to the Focap, Leonen said: “We are not shutting down negotiations just because there would be a proposal to amend the Constitution … We will consider it because that is the nature of a negotiation.”

But he added in a text message: “It is too speculative as of now to talk about whether the Constitution needs to be amended. Certainly, we are studying closely the proposals of the MILF.”

He pointed out that the rebel group had stressed that some Charter changes may be necessary.

“Good faith negotiations require that we consider the universe of possibilities. That does not necessarily translate to a certainty that amendment can or will happen,” Leonen said.

Premature

Teresita Deles, presidential adviser on the peace process, said that it was “premature” to talk about revising the Constitution. She said the government panel had yet to sit down with the MILF.

Nearly nine years of negotiations under then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo had led to the drafting of a landmark accord that would have given expanded autonomy to a Moro homeland in 2008. The deal required constitutional amendments, and was scuttled by fierce opposition from Christian politicians, who feared losing land and clout to minority Muslims.

The Supreme Court later declared the deal unconstitutional.

High level of confidence

Leonen said that Mr. Aquino was sincere in reaching out to the rebels who have been fighting for minority Muslim self-rule for decades.

“A hand extended in peace is a hundred times stronger and a million times more courageous than one that picks up a gun,” Leonen said.

He said the government wanted to resume negotiations with the rebels when the holy Muslim month of Ramadan ends in September. He said a truce had been holding, with only 10 skirmishes recorded so far this year.

MILF chief Ebrahim Murad last week said that he wanted the insurgency to end in his lifetime but added that any future talks would be full of obstacles.

Creativity, political will

Leonen said the MILF had abandoned its quest for a separate homeland and is prepared to settle for the highest form of autonomy.

“The challenge to the current administration is whether it has the creativity and political will to effect the necessary changes,” he said.

“The level of confidence is high,” he said when asked whether Mr. Aquino would be able to end the MILF insurgency before his term expired in 2016.

Mr. Aquino, who won the presidential election by a landslide in May, would have to use his tremendous popularity to get the backing of the nation’s majority Christian population for any deal to prosper, Leonen said.

Political capital needed

“(President Aquino) will have to use his political capital to be able to bring the talks forward,” Leonen said.

Mr. Aquino has said efforts to turn around his impoverished Southeast Asian nation will be futile if it continues to be wracked by violent insurgencies.

More than 120,000 people have died in the decades-long conflict in Mindanao, homeland of minority Muslims in the predominantly Roman Catholic country.

The difficulty of settling a conflict rooted in problems such as massive poverty was exacerbated by Arroyo’s approach to the talks, which were often done in haste and in secrecy without consultation with key stakeholders, Leonen said. With reports from Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Christine O. Avendaño

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