SULU – More than 2,000 people attended a dialogue on the government peace process with Muslim rebels in of Sulu aimed at getting support for the establishment of a new autonomous region in the restive, but mineral-rich island of Mindanao.
Sulu is one of five provinces in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, but the weekend dialogue had left more questions than answers.
Many locals and their leaders say they were not consulted on the government peace talks with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
Presidential peace adviser Teresita Deles, who led a small of team of peace panel members negotiating with rebels, assured the locals and their leaders that the Aquino government has taken all considerations for the sake of ending decades of bloody separatist war in Mindanao and putting up a new Muslim autonomous government that will benefit not only the MILF, but different Muslim and indigenous tribes, including Christians.
“We are optimistic with the peace talks and this will benefit all peoples in Mindanao and the country in general. All we need now is the support of everybody to achieve peace and the talks are getting better.”
Majority of the people of Sulu, and even Basilan and Tawi-Tawi know little about the Bangsamoro Framework Agreement which was signed in October last year. The accord will pave the way for a new Muslim autonomous region that would replace the current Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao which is composed of Basilan, Sulu, Tawi-Tawi, Lanao and Maguindanao provinces, including Lamitan and Marawi cities.
Those who attended the dialogue, organized by the Sulu Governor Totoh Tan, have so many questions about the peace talks and the signed annexes on wealth and power sharing, that it overwhelmed Deles and members of the peace panels.
One participant asked Deles if the peace talks are aimed at appeasing the MILF, which broke away with the larger Moro National Liberation Front in 1978, because many Muslims were not consulted about the agreements with the rebel group.
But some Muslim leaders said their inputs during the dialogue will probably mean nothing to the government peace panels because they were not consulted prior to the signing of the Bangsamoro Framework Agreement.
They said the government should have invited all the ARMM governors to sit as observers to the peace talks with the MILF. But it was only ARMM Gov. Mujiv Hataman who is invited to the peace talks and the governors of Basilan, Sulu, Tawi-Tawi, Lanao and Maguindanao were left in the dark about what’s going on in the talks.
Hataman is not even briefing his governors on what transpired on every peace talks, and same is true with the government peace panel. Another participant asked Deles during the question and answer forum, what is Sulu, or Basilan and Tawi-Tawi – which belong to the Sulu Archipelago – do not vote in favor of the new Bangsamoro government? And that question was well-applauded by the participants and left Deles defending the peace talks.
Many locals asked about the peace agreement with the MNLF under Nur Misuari, who is strongly opposed to the government peace talks with the MILF headed by Murad Ebrahim. Misuari said Manila has violated the provisions of the 1996 peace accord it signed with the MNLF.
Deles said they have repeatedly asked Misuari to join the peace talks, but he declined.
“I want to repeat the instructions of the President to the GPH panel negotiating with the MILF. Hindi dapat lumabag sa parameters ng constitution but maximize the flexibility of the constitution. Two, learn from the lessons from the past. So we will not commit the same mistake and reach a just peace agreement. Third, we will implement whatever we sign. We should be able to implement politically, culturally, and economically. Finally, it has to be inclusive,” she said.
Tan was also asked by one participant about his stand on the government peace talks with the MILF and he told the crowd that he and the provincial officials and mayors in Sulu strongly support the peace process, but in the end it is the people who will have to decide for themselves on their stand on various issues.
“This is the reason why we organized this dialogue so we may know the progress of the peace talks and it is the people of Sulu eventually who will have the final say about the their future,” the governor, who was interrupted by applause from the crowd, said.
Sulu Vice Governor Sakur Tan also appealed to the government peace panel to include them in the consultation because the province is also part of the autonomous region. “I support the peace process, but please consult us also because we are one of the stakeholders here,” he said.
Deles said the Tausug of Sulu is well-represented in the peace panel, saying, the natives of the province has the most number in the government team negotiating with the MILF, and assured Tan and the locals of equality in all aspects of the peace process.
She said they hope to sign the peace agreement by 2014. “At the start of the new year, we hope to achieve a comprehensive agreement. Let’s celebrate diversity. Imagine a rainbow with all those colors banded together rather than just a single dull grey color.
This is what we envision in the peace process. Despite our differences culturally and politically, we can work together and come up with a common understanding.”
The dialogue started in the morning and ended in the afternoon with Deles assuring the locals of the government’s sincerity in the peace process and prioritizing the welfare and future of all stakeholders in the peace talks.