August 12, 2011

Clearing the air

Anyone who has been into peace negotiations, or has at least been earnestly following developments in the GPH-MILF and GPH-NDFP peace talks, would know that conventional thinking is not the best way to solve impasses, achieve breakthroughs and open new paths in the quest for genuine peace.

Peace advocates striving to nurture positive, forward-looking steps in these peace negotiations should welcome the recent protocol-breaking meeting between President Benigno Aquino III and the MILF’s Chairman Murad Ebrahim in Japan.

As late as July, the MILF and its supporters had harsh words for the Aquino government for failing to come up with the GPH counterproposal to the MILF proposed Comprehensive Compact Agreement submitted in February 2011. The MILF also criticized the absolute lack of mention of the peace negotiations in Mr. Aquino’s SONA. They lamented that one year had elapsed since Mr. Aquino’s first SONA with no significant progress to speak of.

The Aquino-Murad one-on-one meeting was held at the instance of the GPH and agreed to by the MILF so long as it is held in another country that is part of the International Contact Group (a grouping of countries helping to facilitate the peace negotiations in varying capacities). It has served as a confidence-booster to the peace talks in light of government delays in responding to the revolutionary group’s proposal for a negotiated settlement.

It purports to send the message that both sides are in earnest in so far as trying to “fast-track” an agreement that would end the armed conflict between them.

For the GPH, Mr. Aquino’s gambit has apparently earned himself almost general approbation even from former and sitting local government officials who had vehemently opposed the MOA-AD and certainly has enhanced his posture as peace-maker.

The only discordant voices within government came from an unnamed DFA official who said that the meeting was an “act of treason”; Cong. Edcel Lagman from the opposition who complained that there was a lack of transparency; and Aquino ally Senator Chiz Escudero who opined that Mr. Aquino was “ill-advised” to meet someone who is “not even his counterpart” and may have opened Mr. Aquino to unspecified vulnerabilities in “this early (sic) stage of negotiations”.

For the MILF, “this historic and unprecedented meeting between the two leaders in a third-party country host is a significant political milestone in the MILF’s quest for Bangsamoro right to self-determination”. We take this to mean that the meeting gives a gigantic push to the MILF’s bid to project the legitimacy and strength of the Bangsamoro struggle both domestically and internationally.

To reassure its forces and supporters, the MILF declared that Chairman Murad reciprocated Mr. Aquino’s “grand gesture” without compromising fundamental principles in its pursuit of the Bangsamoro right to self-determination.

Chairman Murad’s stock within the MILF and among Moro people has definitely been boosted in the wake of the high-profile meeting. This is significant especially in the wake of the split of a sizeable part of the MILF’s armed forces under Commander Umbra Kato and armed hostilities already breaking out between the two.

The outcome of the next round of negotiations set on August 22, especially the content of the GPH counterproposal to the revised Compact Agreement submitted by the MILF will provide the proof of the pudding, so to speak, whether the GPH will accept a modified Memorandum of Agreement-Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD) as the key to unlock the impasse in the 14-year-old talks.

So far the MILF has given up its call for independence or secession and has pushed instead for a “substate” within the existing unitary Philippine state, seeing this as a more acceptable and viable political arrangement than insisting on a federal system that could accommodate the “Bangsamoro juridical entity” or BJE.

The MILF appears to be doing its homework and have studied and are ready with proposals on how GPH can hurdle legal and even constitutional obstacles to the recognition of such a substate. We recall that the MILF conducted these studies and consultations with its various constituents with the help of the US Institute of Peace, with the results incorporated or referred to in the controversial MoA-AD.

Those who think that the MILF's proposal for a substate within the GPH's unitary state amounts to capitulation should recall that in the MoA-AD, the BJE or the substate that it could lead to would eventually be subject to review and possible change after a fixed period of time, including the scope of its territory and its degee of autonomy.

It would also be useful to recall further that the MILF had broken away from the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) in the late 70s after Hashim Salamat, who was then MNLF Vice-Chairman and its chief negotiator with the Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP), rejected the 1976 Tripoli Agreement. Salamat had objected to a last-minute addition by the GRP that the Agreement shall be interpreted and implemented in accordance with the GRP Constitution and legal processes. The Tripoli Agreement, Salamat observed, would solve the problems of the Manila government but not of the Bangsa Moro people.

So far there is nothing in the declarations of the MILF after the Aquino-Murad meetings that would indicate that the MILF is reneging on its demand for the right to self-determination. For the MILF this means the right to a separate national identity as Bangsamoro; to a “national homeland”, which is their ancestral domain; to ownership over all the natural resources and wealth found in their ancestral domain; to govern and rule their national homeland; and finally, the right to determine their future political status (vis a vis the Philippine state).

Clearly, both sides have gained valuable points from their own respective points of view, and certainly from the perception of the general public, both local and international, while not conceding anything new nor substantial if one is to judge from official public statements from the GPH and MILF.

To a large and significant extent, then, the air appears to be somewhat cleared for further no-nonsense negotiations. All the difficult issues remain to be grappled with and fashioned into something that would be mutually beneficial and acceptable and hopefully lead to a just and lasting peace. #

Published in Business World

12- 13 August 2011


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