THREE North Cotabato officials have submitted resolutions and documents that could help the government peace panel in firming up its position on the “enhanced autonomy” proposed by Moro rebels.

North Cotabato Vice Governor Manny Piñol and Board Members Romeo Arana and Ronaldo Pader travelled all the way to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to submit the documents that were gathered from barangays and municipalities in the province.

Ambassador Rafael Seguis, who met the three officials along with two other panel members -- Agrarian Reform Secretary Nasser Pangandaman and Ronald Adamat, thanked Piñol’s group, saying the resolutions are important as they would help the government peace panel decide on the proposed expansion of the autonomous area to be placed under the administration of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

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Seguis and the other panel members were in Kuala Lumpur for a three-day exploratory talk with the MILF negotiating panel led by Mohaqher Iqbal. Both parties want to resolve the decades-old conflict in Mindanao.

Seguis assured Piñol that the government will adhere to the idea of negotiations within the framework of the Constitution and push for an “enhanced autonomy” with the existing territory of the present Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (Armm) as the basis.

He, however, said they are expecting the MILF to push for the expansion of that area to include parts of North Cotabato.

The documents submitted by the three North Cotabato leaders will strengthen their position to oppose such proposal, Seguis said.

Pangandaman said that with the documents and resolutions in the possession of the government peace panel now, it would be easier for the negotiators to explain to the MILF that the people of North Cotabato reject the proposal to be included in “an enhanced autonomy” or the MILF’s proposed Bangsamoro Sub-State.

Seguis and the panel members met with Piñol, Arana, and Pader at the Impiana Hotel for about an hour on Friday following the conclusion of the three-day talks between the Philippine government and MILF hosted by the Malaysian government.

Both the Philippine government and the MILF exchanged draft text proposals on the comprehensive peace compact. They will meet again on February 18 and 19 prior to the expected signing of an agreement in March of this year.

Seguis and his team flew back to Manila also on Friday, carrying with them the MILF's draft proposal that will be presented to President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and the National Security Council.

The MILF team headed by chief negotiator Mohaqher Iqbal, on the other hand, is expected to head to Camp Darapanan in Sultan Kudarat to submit to the MILF Central Committee the government's version of the peace formula.

A press statement issued by the Malaysian Secretariat headed by Datuk Othman Bin Abd Razak said both sides exchanged documents in the presence of the Malaysian facilitator and members of the International Contact Group (ICG).

The statement said both sides are expected to:

1. Preserve the previous gains made in the peace process;

2. Review each other's draft texts with their respective principals;

3. Consult concerned stakeholders on options of moving forward; and

4. Meet again on February 18 to 19, 2010 to discuss the draft texts and identify next steps towards achieving a comprehensive compact and a negotiated solution.

The statement also said the International Monitoring Team (IMT), including a Civilian Protection Component (CPC), will be deployed "in the coming weeks."

But while both sides are positively looking at a March 2010 timetable to sign the "comprehensive peace agreement," there are still serious issues to be resolved by both sides before any peace document could be finalized.

Among the most contentious issues are the differing views of both sides on the "enhanced autonomy" as proposed by the Philippine government and the "Bangsamoro Sub-State" as suggested by the MILF.

Seguis, in a short briefing given to officials of North Cotabato, said the government panel based its proposals solely on what is allowed by the Constitution.

He said the concept of the "enhanced autonomy" would only entail the original political area of the Armm for its territory but with greater or enhanced autonomous powers.

The MILF, on the other hand, has been talking of a "Bangsamoro Sub-State" that is believed to be a reformulated Bangsamoro Juridical Entity (BJE). This would have been established with the signing of the controversial Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD) that was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court last year.

It is expected that the Moro rebel group will demand for a bigger political territory to be included in the Bangsamoro Ancestral Domain, to include towns of the Province of North Cotabato, prompting Piñol and his group to go to Malaysia and meet with the government panel.

Pangandaman said he too expects the MILF to negotiate for a bigger territory.

"That is why the documents submitted by North Cotabato showing the opposition of the people to the inclusion of their areas to the proposed expanded territory is helpful to us in the negotiations," he said.

The detailed positions of both sides are expected to be made public as both the government and the MILF conduct consultations with the stakeholders in Mindanao.

The MILF, on the other hand, said "the GRP draft essentially offers the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao."

In a report by Luwaran.com, Mohagher Iqbal, chairman of MILF negotiating panel, said “this offer was done in April of 2000 and repeated in February of 2003, just before the attack on the MILF Buliok complex in North Cotabato.”

The Seguis-led government negotiating panel submitted a 17-page document, while the MILF’s has 37 pages.

Asked for his comment, MILF lawyer Michael O. Mastura commented off-hand, saying: "The GRP draft is practically an enabling legislation piece."

It was learned from Iqbal later that this government approach deviates from what was agreed during the Agenda Setting Session in the previous special meeting between the government and MILF last December 8 and 9, 2009.

Among those commonly agreed items that the GRP lawyer Camilo Montesa summed up are: 1) identity and citizenship, 2) governance structure, 3) security arrangements, 4) wealth-sharing, natural resources and property rights, 5) restorative justice and reconciliation, 6) implementation arrangements, and 7) independent monitoring.

Mastura also pointed out that, except for item 5, the MILF agreed to prepare a draft as outlined earlier. He, however, clarified that “the MILF stresses transitional justice and reconciliation rather than restorative justice.” (BOT)