OZAMIZ CITY, Philippines?Peace negotiations between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front enter a crucial phase this week, with a Malaysian diplomat travelling to the country to oversee backroom talks between the two sides.
In the last few months of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo?s administration, the government remains optimistic a political settlement can still be clinched with the rebel group.
The formal resumption of talks between the peace negotiating panels of the MILF and government will not push through as scheduled on Thursday at the request of Mohagher Iqbal, MILF peace panel chair, ?in order to attend to pressing matters related to the ongoing negotiations.?
Following the January talks in Kuala Lumpur, the two panels have publicly declared they would hold a series of consultations with their principals as well as constituencies regarding the draft agreements they have exchanged.
But Iqbal said the postponement will not hurt the pace of the peace process as back-channel negotiations are ongoing in place of the formal one.
A new schedule for the formal talks will be dependent on the progress of back-channel negotiations but they are targeting to have it by the end of February or early March, Iqbal said.
A source familiar with the peace negotiations told the Inquirer that Malaysian envoy Datuk Othman bin Abdul Razak is due in the country this week to personally oversee the backroom processes.
Abdul Razak, a high official in the Office of the Prime Minister of Malaysia, acts as third-party facilitator of the negotiations.
The source added that the back-channel talks are aimed at ?closing the gap? between the draft agreements the two panels exchanged last January.
The MILF leadership had earlier criticized the government for ?a rehashed? proposal of "enhanced autonomy" which Iqbal said the rebel group was twice offered and which it also rejected twice.
Iqbal earlier described the two drafts as having ?no point of convergence.?
The government panel has admitted its draft was crafted along the provisions of the Philippine Constitution and consistent with the Supreme Court ruling on the legal infirmities of the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD).
?We cannot negotiate within the Philippine Constitution. That is only binding to government,? Iqbal explained.
The aborted signing of the MOA-AD on August 5, 2008 led to the outbreak of fresh hostilities between government and MILF forces that lasted almost a year.
He told the Inquirer the rebel group insists on moving forward on the basis of a July 29, 2009 joint statement of the two panels in which they agreed ?to reframe the consensus points? in the process of working out a new agreement.
Iqbal said it was only logical that the starting point for formal talks be the scrapped MOA-AD because that is where the panels were at when the process was suspended.
Despite the wide gap between their two drafts, Iqbal said he was optimistic ?there is still something that can be done to salvage the negotiations.?
?Things can still happen,? he said.