ZAMBOANGA CITY (BusinessWorld/09 June) -- Negotiators of the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) have started exchanging notes on Friday -- a key step in the process of completing a comprehensive agreement within the year. 

Government chief negotiator Miriam Coronel-Ferrer told BusinessWorld yesterday her panel has sent a draft to the MILF through the Malaysian facilitator.

"The [Malaysian] facilitator [Tengku Datu Abdul Ghafar Tengku bin Mohamed] arrived on Friday and we have exchanged notes and messages on the issues related to the wealth and power sharing annexes," she said.

MILF chief negotiator Mohagher Iqbal confirmed that the MILF has received the documents from the government.

"We have received it but not yet looked at it," he said in a separate interview, adding the MILF central committee had asked its experts to study the documents "very closely."

Mr. Iqbal could not say when the MILF will respond on the government’s draft on the remaining annexes on wealth and power sharing, and normalization.

"As of now, I cannot give any further statement on this since we have not yet fully read… the content," he said.

However, the official said the MILF "will stick" to the version of the draft on wealth sharing that the two parties have initialled last February.

Earlier, both sides have initialled a document on the wealth-sharing agreement -- an initial process that the negotiators have agreed in principle but subject to the approval of their principals.

However, the government decided to change major points on the wealth-sharing agreement, prompting the previous negotiations to hit an impasse.

President Benigno S. C. Aquino III has asked the MILF to give the government more time to consolidate its stand and come up with its final versions on the three remaining annexes to complete the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro that will eventually become the comprehensive final peace deal.

It was decided that the resumption will be held after last month’s midterm elections, and both sides should exchange notes first before resuming formal talks in Kuala Lumpur.

So far, the only annex that both sides have agreed is the transitional modalities that details on the transfer of the functions from the existing Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) to the ministerial form of government of the future Bangsamoro Region.

Ms. Coronel-Ferrer said the government is doing everything to hasten the negotiation amid an apparent delay.

"All avenues to hasten the resolution of the difficult issues are being tapped before the formal talks," she said.

The Malaysian facilitator left the country yesterday, she added.

Civil society groups in Mindanao have earlier voiced their frustration over the delays in the southern peace talks, urging the government and the MILF to firm up their commitments.

The time line of the talks requires both sides to finish their negotiations and come up with a final peace deal early this year to give time for the Bangsamoro Transition Committee -- chaired by Mr. Iqbal -- to draft the basic law for the creation of the Bangsamoro region in Mindanao, replacing the ARMM before 2016.

The basic law will be submitted to Congress for approval and enactment of Mr. Aquino. A referendum will take place for residents of provinces under the proposed Bangsamoro Region to affirm their participation.

The Mindanao Peoples Caucus, which represents civil society in the International Monitoring Team that oversees the ceasefire between the government and the MILF, said the entire process needs substantial time and the delay in the discussion could jeopardize the creation of the new region.

Last weekend, Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process Teresita Q. Deles admitted that it took the government some time to consolidate its stand on the remaining annexes, particularly on the subjects of wealth and power.

"It has taken more time to craft creative and technically viable solutions to enable the Bangsamoro to achieve the needed political and fiscal autonomy for its sustainable development and durable peace, but we are surely getting there," said Ms. Deles.

Since the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro -- or the peace plan -- and all its annexes were "carefully crafted," she said the government is confident that these "will be able to pass the crucial tests of implementation."

Ms. Deles also said the entire government wants "clarity in how some of the new fiscal and power-sharing arrangements will be implemented, especially those which will have to be enacted into law."

"Within the government, we have achieved a level of common understanding and cooperation with the concerned Cabinet clusters particularly on fiscal management and security that has been unprecedented in our long years in the peace process," she said.

The final peace deal aims to respond to the clamor of the Moros in Mindanao for self-determination, an issue that has been vigorously pursued with arms for more than four decades. -- Darwin T. Wee/BusinessWorld Online Edition