MANILA, AUGUST 6, 2011, (STAR) By Aurea Calica and Delon Porcalla (Photo is loading... Photo released by the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process shows President Aquino meeting with Moro Islamic Liberation Front chairman Al Haj Murad Ibrahim in a hotel near Narita airport in Tokyo on Aug. 4.)

President Aquino and his delegation slipped out of the country on Thursday to hold an unannounced meeting with Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) chair Al Haj Murad Ibrahim in Tokyo, Japan where they agreed to speed up negotiations for ending the decades-long Muslim separatist struggle in Mindanao.

Government peace panel chairman Marvic Leonen declined to reveal details of the meeting held in a hotel near the Narita airport, but assured the public that no secret deal was made and that there would be no repeat of the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD) whose botched signing after its being declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court triggered a killing rampage by rogue elements of the MILF in 2008.

Palace officials said the Japan meeting was the first time a Philippine president had held face-to-face talks with the MILF chairman in 14 years of on-and-off peace negotiations.

“Both agreed to fast-track the negotiations,” a government statement said.

“Both agreed that the implementation of any agreement should happen within the current administration,” it added, referring to Aquino’s six-year term that ends in mid-2016.

Leonen said the President’s instructions to the government peace panel were very clear: that they should be pragmatic and never promise anything not feasible or attainable.

The MILF, according to Leonen, described the President’s move as a “grand gesture” of sincerity.

Leonen said they had to keep the meeting secret for security reasons and to avoid media frenzy which could affect the atmosphere of the meeting.

“We have learned from the MOA-AD,” Leonen said, adding the government was reconnecting with the MILF on a very “sincere plane.”

Leonen said Murad told the President of his confidence in his administration.

“You are unlike the previous administration, we know that you are sincere,” Leonen quoting Murad as saying.

“I was counting it (expression of confidence), it was repeated three times by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front,” Leonen said.

He said the President and Murad discussed “frames as to how to fast-track the process, a commitment and a delivery of the message that we want implementation and we are sincere with the just, comprehensive lasting agreement.”

Leonen said “there are other things that they discussed.”

Leonen stressed that Aquino assured the MILF leaders of a “feasible, practical, viable politically and economically” peace agreement.

“The President said I can only commit, in many occasions, that which I can do and I will do whatever it is that I can commit. I think to the MILF that smacked of a lot of sincerity on the part of the President,” Leonen said.

Separatists no more

Leonen said the MILF should no longer be called a separatist or secessionist movement because it was no longer seeking an independent state but a sub-state where they would remain Filipino citizens.

At the same time, Leonen said the meeting did not diminish the President’s stature or give the MILF belligerency status.

“Why not (meet with MILF) if the President is very serious about this? If the administration for the past 14 years did not even meet with them and they said that they were serious in peace, then you see now, the President himself really wanting for himself to actually talk to the head of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front,” Leonen said.

“The President meets with all sorts of civil groups. The President meets with all sorts of Filipinos and here, if you are serious about peace, why is that you cannot meet with the chair of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front?”

Leonen said the President and Murad met for about two hours at the Ana Crown Hotel near Narita airport at 8:30 p.m., or two and a half hours after Aquino and his delegation arrived on a chartered flight from Manila at 6 p.m.

“The President will meet with any Filipino anywhere in the world, in the planet, especially if he is serious enough to talk about an agenda which is important for the country,” Leonen said.

“So this is a meeting between Filipinos. It was held in Japan. The President is willing to meet anywhere including any place. We offered to meet in Mindanao, we even offered to meet very close to where the heart of the MILF is. However, they requested that the meeting take place in any one of the International Contact Group (ICG) countries, and of course, one of them, the closest is Japan, and therefore we thought the place was not an issue,” Leonen said.

Other ICG member-countries are Saudi Arabia, Turkey and United Kingdom.

“It’s a fruitful meeting. The government is serious in looking for (a) genuine solution to the problem,” an AFP report quoted MILF vice-chairman Ghazali Jaafar as saying in a phone interview. Jaafar did not travel with Murad.

“The peace process is now on the straight, sa matuwid na daan,” he said later in a statement.

“It was the first time in the history of Bangsamoro struggle that the President and MILF chief meet in a foreign land,” he said.

“We presented to the President our position on the GPH-MILF peace process,” Jaafar said.

“We also presented our talking points to President Aquino and his party while his group also presented the government’s talking points,” he added.

“All what was discussed was about the GPH-MILF peace process, how to find solutions and who to develop Muslim Mindanao,” Jaafar said.

Asked to specify MILF’s talking points, Jaafar said “we want a nation but not separate from the republic. It must have power to govern but not about the power of the Philippine government.”

“We told the President that we want Bangsamoro state not like the ARMM which is inutile,” he added.

A member of the MILF peace panel who declined to be identified described the meeting as a “getting-to-know-you session.”

“This (peace) is something we can hope for, but there’s still a lot of legwork to do in the coming months,” he said.

Trip unofficial

The President’s delegation, aside from Leonen, included Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process Teresita Quintos-Deles, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin, National Security Adviser Cesar Garcia, Budget Secretary Florencio Abad, Finance Secretary Cesar Purisima, and presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda.

The group left Japan at 10 a.m. yesterday and arrived at around 3 p.m. in Manila.

The Palace said the presidential trip to Japan was unofficial but the Japanese government was gracious enough to shoulder some of the expenses in hosting the meeting.

“The meeting was cordial but consisted of a frank and candid exchange of their views about the frames of the continuing peace talks and some possible approaches that the parties can take to bring about a peaceful settlement,” Leonen said.

Leonen said it was the President himself who sought the meeting prior to his administration’s submission of its own agenda for the talks.

Leonen disclosed the meeting was set during a meeting on June 27.

“It was during that meeting that the panels discussed the possibility for the meeting between the President and the chair of the MILF. The government panel shared its proposed details and agenda,” Leonen said.

“The MILF panel, on the other hand, communicated the view of their central committee that the offer for a meeting was a ‘grand gesture’ on the part of government. They also mentioned that it was an ‘honor’ that this historical meeting was going to take place,” Leonen said.

“Only the President, Murad and their note takers were in the meeting room. The meeting was informal,” he added.

“The meeting helps the formal negotiations between the panels of both sides. It will facilitate its progress,” Leonen said, adding he was one of the note takers.

Murad was accompanied to the meeting place by some members of the MILF’s central committee and some commanders.

“We thank Japan for providing the facilities consistent with their longstanding commitment to peace, as well as the Malaysian facilitator for assisting with arrangements between the two parties for this historic meeting,” Leonen said.

Japan was chosen as venue for the meeting since it is part of the International Contact Group on Mindanao that has been supporting the country’s peace talks with the Muslim rebels.

Lacierda, for his part, said, “The President saw the opportunity. He felt that this was the best time to meet with chairman Murad. And I think the discussions were very fruitful. It was a candid exchange.”

The official negotiating panels of the two sides are now expected to head back to Malaysia to continue the talks on Aug. 15.

The MILF, said to be 12,000-strong, is expected to drop its demand for a separate state in Mindanao at the resumption of the peace talks.

The rebellion has killed over 150,000 people and stunted economic growth in the mineral rich but impoverished regions in Mindanao.

Aquino’s predecessor Gloria Arroyo, who is now a Pampanga congresswoman, failed to sign a peace deal with the MILF during the nearly 10 years she was in power.

Rogue elements of the MILF went on a killing rampage in 2008 following the Supreme Court’s rejection of the MOA-AD between the Arroyo administration and the MILF.

The aborted deal would have given the MILF control over vast tracts of land, even in Christian dominated areas.

More than 750,000 people were displaced at the height of the fighting, triggering a humanitarian crisis.

About 400 civilians and fighters from both sides were also killed.

After Aquino came to power last year, peace talks resumed between the two sides in Malaysia, with the last round held in June.

The MILF broke away in 1978 from the Moro National Liberation Front, which launched a bloody separatist uprising in Mindanao in 1971 before signing a peace treaty with the government in 1996.

Aquino may be following the footsteps of his late mother, former President Corazon Aquino, who met MNLF chairman Nur Misuari in 1987 soon after his return from exile in Saudi Arabia. With John Unson

Tokyo meeting seen to lead to peace accord (The Philippine Star) Updated August 06, 2011 12:00 AM

[PHOTO - President Aquino exchanges pleasantries with officers of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front led by its chairman, Al Haj Murad (ctr), during a secret meeting in Tokyo. Photo by Jay Morales, Malacañang Photo]

MANILA, Philippines - While it took many by surprise, President Aquino’s unannounced meeting with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) leader in Japan was generally welcomed.

House Senior Deputy Minority Leader and Maguindanao Rep. Simeon Datumanong said he was heartened by Aquino’s gesture of reaching out to MILF leader Al Haj Murad Ibrahim.

“That meeting would greatly boost chances of an understanding with the MILF and help make peace in Mindanao, especially in conflict areas,” Datumanong told The STAR.

“It’s a good thing that there was a personal touch. I hope that this would lead to a good peace agreement soon,” he said.

Davao del Sur Rep. Marc Douglas Cagas said he trusts that Aquino has laid down terms that are advantageous to the majority of Filipinos.

“I expect that he (Aquino) put forward a position that would be beneficial for all Filipinos so we can finally attain peace,” he said.

He, however, said Aquino and the MILF leadership must disclose the details of the meeting, saying the peace process is an issue that cannot be decided by two people alone.

“We are all stakeholders in the peace process. We must not be kept in the dark, especially if there are some secret understanding or commitments,” Cagas said.

Former peace adviser and government negotiator with the MILF Jesus Dureza said the secret meeting reminded him of the late President Corazon Aquino’s own meeting with Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) chairman Nur Misuari in 1987.

“For her son, President Noynoy to take a similar bold step for peace is also historic. From where I sit, I consider this meeting an effort to fast-track the peace process. We congratulate both the government and the MILF in taking the unconventional route just so an early settlement can be mutually forged,” Dureza said in a text message.

“A word of caution though. The road to peace is not easy. There are still many facets that must be attended to and resolved. The top-level meeting must be followed through vigorously and relentlessly until a final pact is signed, sealed and implemented. We know the rigors of peace making and peace building,” he said.

He said after the two leaders have taken “bold initiatives for peace, we the citizens must all unite and provide support to sustain these gains.”

Analysts said the secret meeting in Japan could be part of an imaginative but risky strategy to move the peace talks forward after initial delays and rebels’ suspicion that the government was insincere in negotiating.

“Such a meeting would entail significant political risk for President Aquino and could hand ammunition to his opponents if the administration was subsequently unable to reach a deal,” the International Crisis Group (ICG) said in a report.

“We don’t have any information about that meeting. If there is indeed one, the ARMM leadership is hoping both parties can achieve something tangible that would hasten the attainment of lasting peace and sustainable development in Southern Mindanao,” said Ali Macabalang, information director of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.

“Let’s pray for a fruitful outcome of that meeting if indeed there is such meeting,” said Malang.

“We’ll just have to wait and see. We in the MNLF want peace in Mindanao and we shall support all peaceful means of putting that in place,” said Cotabato City Vice Mayor Muslimin Sema, chairman of the most dominant of four factions in the MNLF.

In Zamboanga City, local government leaders reminded the Aquino administration to stick to the framework of the Constitution in its negotiation with MILF.

“We hope the peace talks to continue with the result that is based on the framework of the Constitution,” Mayor Celso Lobregat said.

“The Supreme Court struck down the MOA-AD, and that should not be used as basis for the peace negotiation because it was unconstitutional,” Lobregat said. “We have to be vigilant.”

North Cotabato Gov. Emmylou Talino-Mendoza, for her part, called for transparency.

“It is good that they met. At least it is contrary to speculations that the President does not care for the peace process in Mindanao because he did not include the matter in his last State of the Nation Address (SONA),” Mendoza said.

“Just be transparent. Do away with malicious insinuations,” Mendoza added.

Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte also welcomed the Japan meeting.

“It is a positive development and we welcome such moves by the President,” Duterte said.

“I am sure the President would make the necessary announcement about it soon,” Duterte said.

Former chief of the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (OPAPP) Hermogenes Esperon Jr. said the meeting was a positive development.

He also said that there was nothing wrong with Japan’s hosting of the meeting.

“Peace can be negotiated anywhere. Remember also that Japan has led the economic development team and JICA (Japan International Coordinating Agency) has many projects already in conflict areas,” he said.

But House Minority Leader and Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman said Aquino should fully explain to the public his “excursion” to Tokyo.

“The President’s excursion to Japan more than meets the eye. Much explaining has to be done,” he said in a statement.

“What was achieved? What are the commitments? Could not the President send an emissary instead of him going there?” he asked.

He said the President’s secret trip to Tokyo “violates his own policy on transparency.”

“The country is not the personal fiefdom of President Aquino. Any presidential action which has a bearing on national interest and national security must be transparent and previously discussed with, among others, the Cabinet and the National Security Council,” he said.

He urged the Chief Executive to also reveal the security arrangements for his trip.

“The people have a stake in his security. How was he secured? How extensive were the preparations? Was there a security breach?” he said. Jess Diaz, Paolo Romero, Jaime Laude, Edith Regalado, Roel Pareño, John Unson

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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