MILF talks show Malaysia eyes Mindanao: WikiLeaks cables

Posted at 09/07/2011 10:02 PM | Updated as of 09/08/2011 5:49 PM

MANILA, Philippines - Malaysia has shown interest in expanding its influence in Mindanao and cashing in on the region by acting as a facilitator in peace talks between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), several US embassy cables published online by anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks have revealed.

US Ambassador to Malaysia Ambassador Christopher J. LaFleur made one such observation in secret cable 07KUALALUMPUR1234 dated August 2, 2007, wherein he discussed the results of his meeting with then peace talks facilitator Othman Abdul Razak.

The cable, which was classified secret, said Othman complained about America's development projects in impoverished communities in Mindanao.

"Othman's expressed unease with our development assistance appears to reflect a degree of Malaysian wariness with increasing US activities and presence in a neighboring Muslim area of Southeast Asia," the cable said. "It also whiffs of Malaysian interests [in] Mindanao, an area in which Malaysia desires influence and economic gain."

Another secret-classified cable, 06KUALALUMPUR1812, stated that the Malaysian facilitator had been showing clear bias in favor of the MILF in the peace talks.

"Othman continues to convey strong pro-Moro sympathies in our meetings and does not hide his view that, at this juncture at least, compromises should come from Manila, not from the MILF," said the cable, which was also sent by LaFleur.

Malaysian facilitator demanded more land

Aside from insisting that the Philippine government decide on the issue of the MILF's ancestral domain claim, the Malaysian also wanted the Philippine government to grant a larger territory to the MILF.

"Othman said the MILF would settle for an area that would roughly double the current size of the mainland ARMM, expanding it into contiguous areas in Mindanao," the memo said.

The Malaysian also kept on blaming the Armed Forces of the Philippines for sporadic outbreaks of violence in Mindanao, accusing the AFP of leading "landgrabbing" in the region by killing people and drive away villagers.

"Othman said he believed many elements in the AFP were opposed to a peace settlement with the MILF because of the benefits they received from a continuation of the conflict, including career advancement and personal enrichment through corruption.  He questioned whether President Arroyo had the ability to enforce discipline within the AFP," cable 07KUALALUMPUR496 said.

In November last year, Philippine government peace panel chief Dean Marvic Leonen said Philippine interests are primarily at stake in the negotiations with the MILF.

"Any good facilitator knows that if one side has lack of confidence in him, he should immediately resign for the sake of the negotiations," Leonen said in a statement. "Othman is not indispensable for peace to happen in Mindanao."

"We are also surprised that he claims credit for the outcome of past negotiations. We thought that these are talks between the GRP and the MILF. Has he been dictating the terms of the agreements? With his statements we are more convinced that the talks can really move forward without him as facilitator. There is too much mistrust and recrimination," he added. "We trust that Malaysia knows all these and it does not have Othman but its goodwill to facilitate peace in Mindanao in mind."

Bias

Othman has since been replaced by the Malaysian government as facilitator in the peace talks after Manila accused him of bias. 

Kuala Lumpur has named Tengku Abdul Ghaffar Mohammad as Othman's replacement. The new facilitator is expected to arrive in the Philippines soon as part of the ongoing talks, according to the MILF.

Before Othman was replaced, he kept on urging the US to exert pressure on Manila to offer more on the table.

"Othman continued that creative thinking and associated risk-taking required a position of political strength that Arroyo lacked.  He doubted GMA would take such risks absent pressure from the international community," cable 06KUALALUMPUR1812 said.

"Othman, by his own admission, was pessimistic on near-term prospects for the GRP-MILF peace process and more partisan in placing the blame for the current impasse on Arroyo's government," it added. "However, he did not signal any plan for Malaysia to bow out of its facilitator role.  Othman clearly intended his comments to influence US views in support of international pressure on Manila."

At one time, the Malaysian suggested to the US that the deadlock between the Philippines and the rebels may be broken by a "secret agreement."

"Othman and the MILF regretted that the GRP side was not empowered to discuss 'governance' issues. Othman said treatment of 'self-determination' was the key sticking point, and this might be resolved through a secret codicil," said cable 08KUALALUMPUR94, which is also classified secret.

Cable 06KUALALUMPUR2235, meanwhile, said the Malaysian insisted that the success of the talks relies on the Philippine government's willingness to grant what the MILF rebels are asking for.

"The Malaysian facilitator notably continued to place the onus for compromise on Manila rather than the MILF," it said.

Peace talks role boosts Malaysia

The US embassy in Kuala Lumpur believes that Malaysia will continue to play a major role in the ongoing peace talks between the government and the Moro rebels.
 
"Malaysia would stand to lose a great deal of prestige in the region and future influence in Mindanao by giving up on the IMT (International Monitoring Team).  We presume a precipitous Malaysian withdrawal from the IMT would damage or jeopardize Kuala Lumpur's peace facilitation role," said cable 07KUALALUMPUR1506.

"If a country like Indonesia stepped in to replace Malaysia as a monitor or peacemaker, this would constitute a major blow to Malaysia's regional position," it said. 

"Without the IMT members on the ground, Malaysia also would lose much of its Mindanao field intelligence and harm linkages with the MILF. For these reasons, we do not believe Malaysia would take lightly the decision to abandon the IMT," it added.