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PH resets KL peace talks

PRESIDENT Benigno Aquino III canceled this week’s talks with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front but his peace adviser offered no reason for the action Monday. “The President has requested that the 37th round of formal exploratory talks that was originally scheduled to begin March 25 be reset to April next month,” said presidential peace adviser Teresita Deles in a statement. Deles said government chief negotiator Miriam Coronel Ferrer, together with panel members Yasmin Lao and Senen Bacani, went to Kuala Lumpur Monday “to personally convey the request” and to set a new date for the talks. Pressed for an explanation, presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda quoted Deles as saying the move would give the government more time to review the remaining annexes in the peace agreement being hammered out by the two sides. Asked about why the talks were cancelled on the day they were to take place, Lacierda added: “Nothing happened. The panel is in Kuala Lumpur.” In a text message from the Malaysian capital, Ferrer referred journalists to Deles’ statement, which offered no other details. Deles only said that Ferrer and her MILF counterpart, Mohagher Iqbal, “will likewise discuss the preparations being undertaken for the Transition Commission.” Deles’ statement, released after lunch time Monday, came as a surprise as the President, in an interview in the morning, assured journalists that the talks with the MILF would not be derailed because of the Sabah crisis, which was triggered last month when the sultan of Sulu sent an armed contingent to the town of Lahad Datu to reassert his claim to the Malaysian state. “I think we’ve been very transparent. (My orders) haven’t changed. We want to finish all of the annexes. But we also have to be able to come to an understanding on these annexes, so that the crafting of the new organic act will be something that all stakeholders can agree to and rally behind,” Mr. Aquino said. “The Sabah issue should not affect the ongoing talks with the MILF,” he added. In an interview over the weekend with state-run Philippines News Agency, Iqbal said both panels are expected to tackle annexes on the sharing of power and wealth, and the process of normalization during this week’s talks. During the last exploratory talks, the government and MILF peace panels signed one of four annexes – the transitional arrangements and modalities. Earlier, Lacierda said the government has no plans to replace Malaysia as a facilitator of the peace talks despite reports of human rights abuses committed by its security forces against Filipinos in Sabah. Lacierda made the assurance in response to a statement by former government chief negotiator Jesus Dureza that Malaysia’s role as a neutral facilitator has been “blown to pieces” amid reports of summary executions and human rights violations against Filipinos in Sabah. “One of the major casualties of the Sabah incident is the MILF peace negotiations. Evidently, events have overtaken the MILF peace talks,” Dureza said. Dureza said the “violent operations against Filipino Muslims in Lahad Datu” has cast a shadow of doubt on Malaysia as a credible peace talks broker. Malaysia is also the head of the International Monitoring Team that is overseeing the implementation of a ceasefire agreement between the government and the MILF. The MILF leadership has already said that it will not issue a policy statement on the Sabah conflict. “That’s a very sensitive issue. We cannot issue any statement on that,” Iqbal said in an earlier interview. The Malaysian government on Monday announced plans to relocate villagers in parts of Borneo vulnerable to intruders from Mindanao. The plan underscores a surge in fears about public safety following the armed intrusion by the Sulu Sultanate that has left at least 75 people dead in Malaysia’s eastern Sabah state. It also highlights concerns that the intruders received help from some Filipinos who resettled in Sabah over the decades and became Malaysian citizens. Prime Minister Najib Razak announced the plan as part of measures to bolster security that also include increasing military forces in Sabah. Najib did not say how many people would be affected or when the relocation might occur. He said it would initially involve Sabah’s eastern seaboard, which can be reached within an hour by boat from Mindanao. Sabah is home to more than 3 million people, about 800,000 of whom are Filipinos who came to Malaysia seeking jobs and stability. Border security has long been problematic, with illegal immigrants and criminal suspects repeatedly slipping past naval patrols and entering Sabah by sea. The state suffered its worst security scare in decades when 235 armed Filipinos appeared at a remote coastal village in February and refused to leave, insisting that Sabah belonged to their royal clan. The territorial claim, rejected by Malaysia, triggered unprecedented gunbattles that killed eight Malaysian policemen, a soldier and scores of Filipino gunmen and their alleged sympathizers who provided them with shelter, food and information. Some activists say decades-old flaws in Malaysia’s immigration and security policies enabled the Filipinos to launch their siege with relative ease and elude security forces with the assistance of allies living in Sabah. The incursion has forced the government to take steps to convince the public that it is able to safeguard national sovereignty ahead of general elections that must be held before the end of June. Dozens of the Filipino clansmen are believed to have fled back to Mindanao, but security forces are searching for some believed to be hiding on palm oil plantation land in Sabah. On Monday, the Justice Department submitted a legal opinion on the sultanate’s claim over Sabah to President Aquino. Justice Secretary Leila de Lima declined to offer specifics, saying only that the report explores the feasibility of filing an arbitration case before an international tribunal, such as the International Court of Justice. “I tried to come up with a comprehensive study considering the historical and legal perspectives to answer the questions of will we have a strong case if we pursue this before an appropriate tribunal and what are the options in light of the current situation,” she said. De Lima said the President also would want to await separate reports from the Department of Foreign Affairs and from Executive Secretary Pacquito Ochoa. “There are complex matters. We don’t know if the President will refer it to a group of independent experts,” she said. A spokesman for the sultanate on Monday again sought the intervention by the United States, citing a 1915 agreement signed by the sultan and the US-appointed governor of Mindanao and Sulu, Frank Carpenter. But the US government, through Ambassador Harry Thomas, ruled out a role in the Sabah conflict, saying it was not covered by the US-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty. Also on Monday, a Tawi-Tawi court ordered a reinvestigation of criminal charges filed against 38 alleged members of the sultan’s Royal Security Force, who were intercepted at sea, purportedly after leaving Sabah. The accused are facing charges of inciting to war and of violating an election period gun ban and are detained at a naval facility in Panglima Sugala. With Rey E. Requejo, Ferdinand Fabella, AP
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