Q and A with MILF chair Al Haj Murad Ebrahim: “We will try to work out every effort to make armed struggle the last option”  

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Al Haj Murad Ebrahim was looking forward to his trip to Hiroshima, Japan on the third week of June not only because he was going to address the 6th Consolidation for Peace for Mindanao (COP 6) seminar on the theme “Post Agreement Implementation: Building Capacities for Peace of the Bangsamoro Stakeholders” but also because he would meet again with President Benigno Simeon Aquino III, whom he last saw on March 27, 2014 at the signing of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB) in the gardens of Malacanang.

Japan is historic for both leaders as it was in Tokyo on August , 2011 where Murad, on invitation of President Aquino, first met, and agreed, to fast-track the peace process so that the a peace agreement would be signed first half of the President’s administration (2010 to 2013) and implementation would be done in the second half (2013 to 2016).

In his keynote address at the COP6 on June 24, Aquino lauded Japan’s decision to host his 2011 meeting with Murad despite the fact that it was, “admittedly a risky move, especially since there was no certainty that negotiations would succeed.”

Aquino said the 2011 meeting happened “at a crucial time” when talks with the MILF had reached a “difficult standstill, and I had broached the idea of directly meeting with Chairman Murad to move the discussions forward.”

“To their credit, they responded in the affirmative. In hindsight, to us, that was the turning point in our narrative to secure a just and lasting peace. Trust was established between brothers, and genuine dialogue was possible,” the President said.

“Trust” was also mentioned by Murad in the keynote address he delivered on June 23. “While trust is built at the outset of the bargaining process, we cannot discount the possibility of that trust being broken after all has been said and done, despite the shaking of the hands and the exchange of pulpy promises. In all honesty, it is when those promises are actually kept that the parties anticipate that the real and meaningful consequences will follow,” he said.

Al Haj Murad Ebrahim, MILF chair. MIndaNews photo by Toto Lozano
Al Haj Murad Ebrahim, MILF chair. MIndaNews photo by Toto Lozano

Murad and MILF peace panel chair Mohagher Iqbal were seated onstage along with Japanese and Philippine government officials while the President delivered his speech on June 24.

Throughout Aquino’s 17-minute speech, the two MILF officials looked crestfallen, and distant. It was only after the President left when MindaNews learned that they had met with the President for about “15 to 20 minutes” before his speech.

Murad and Iqbal said they raised “concerns” over Malacanang’s proposed revisions to the draft Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) that the Bangsamoro Transition Commission (BTC) submitted to the Office of the President on April 22.

The “concerns” must have been so substantial that two months after that Hiroshima  meeting – within which the peace panels held a total of 21 days of “workshops” in Kuala Lumpur, Manila and Davao between July 8 and August 10; the President met with the BTC on July 24; and finally the fast and productive series of meetings between Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa and Iqbal since August 10 — the final text of the “mutually acceptable” draft BBL is, finally, almost nearing completion.

It is “99.99% done,” Iqbal said on August 31.

What were the “concerns” raised with the President and why has it taken another two months to address these “concerns”? MILF chair Al Haj Murad Ebrahim explains these and other issues to MindaNews’ Carolyn O. Arguillas in a sit-down interview initially set for late July but apparently due to the problems hounding the Bangsamoro Basic Law, Murad’s office reset it for August 13 then 24, in the MILF’s Camp Darapanan in Sultan Kudarat, Maguindanao.

Murad declined to discuss specific provisions of the draft BBL as the final draft was still being worked out.

Excerpts from the interview: 

Q. Take us back to that meeting with the President in Hiroshima.

A. The meeting was pre-arranged but it turned out to be urgent because when we saw the review and comments (on the draft BBL) we were really surprised. We were shocked because almost everything was … reformulated. We saw really great changes in the draft of the BTC (Bangsamoro Transition Commission). I raised to him our concern that the review took (the Office of the President) two months. Secondly, I said we just saw the reformatted BBL and we were very disgusted because it was not only the provisions introduced in the BTC that were changed but even those provisions in the agreement itself were diluted. 

Q. Did you actually use the words “very disgusted?”

A. Yeah. Sabi ko it has really changed the spirit of the document.. He confirmed to me that time that he had not read it yet… He said when he returns to Manila he would spend time to read and that we would talk again. We suggested that the Malacanang-reviewed draft be forwarded to the peace panels. He said okay. So that’s why the panels met (note: the MILF-led, 15-member GPH-MILF BTC, the body tasked to draft the BBL, passed a resolution on July elevating to the peace panels its concerns on Malacanang’s proposed revisions to its draft).

Q. But after a total of 21 days of “workshops” in Kuala Lumpur, Manila and Davao, they still failed to come up with a mutually acceptable draft BBL.

A. We see that as a problem because while we understand that (government is) making sure that the BBL will pass Congress smoothly, while we appreciate that intention, we cannot also sacrifice the agreement because we‘ve worked out the agreement for more than 17 years.. I was very frank with the President that the MILF cannot accept a Basic Law that will derogate from the agreement signed.

Q. And what did he say?

A. At that time he said he had not read it yet but he said ‘I am assuring you this will be settled.’

Q. Government has its non-negotiables, you have your own non-negotiables

A. Yes. What was (already agreed upon) should not be renegotiated except formulations introduced by the BTC. Our argument is, if we allow changes to the signed agreement, then it will repeat the whole process. Supposed to be, this should not be negotiation but a matter of how to operationalize the agreement.

Q. But you are actually negotiating again?

A. Actually the process is repeating. It is not supposed to be negotiation pero yun ang nangyayari. 

Q. If Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa did not arrive in Davao City on August 10, there would not have been significant progress?

A. Yes, except for fiscal autonomy, yun lang natapos (by August 10). Generally, whatever issue they (GPH) introduce that will be contrary to the signed agreement, that’s our non-negotiable.. Our main concern is that there will be no derogation from the agreement. This was also the problem during the 1996 peace agreement that until now the MNLF (Moro National Liberation Front) is claiming is not fully implemented.

Q. History is repeating itself?

A. That is a possibility that will happen but on our part we are trying our best that that will not happen so as early as before the drafting of BBL, we had in our agreement the term “non-derogation.” That is actually a protection that there will be no unilateral implementation because that happened with the MNLF; when they could not agree, government did a unilateral (implementation of the) agreement. In the peace process, even during the time of Arroyo, they were offering us the ARMM so we look at this as a similar pattern.

Q After your 2011 meeting with the President, government presented its counter-proposal of “ for ,” right? Did the reviewed draft BBL offer something like “ for ?”(The government’s “ for one” formula, handed over to the MILF in Kuala Lumpur three weeks after the Tokyo meeting involves “massive economic development; political settlement with the MILF; and cultural-historical acknowledgment” with a ‘”strengthened” ARMM whose election in August 2011 had been reset for May 2013. The MILF rejected the proposal, prompting then GPH panel chair Marvic Leonen to reply, “We reject your rejection.”)

A. We can see that the frame of mind is still there, “ for .’ But it’s very clear that it’s not enhancing the ARMM, it’s not developing the ARMM (that we want) but abolition of the ARMM.. that’s why we are passing this BBL in order to abolish ARMM… Very clear din na yung gusto natin na ma-in place na government is a ministerial government so this is very different from the ARMM.

Q. Let’s do reality check. There is very limited time now, less than two years. The President has been pushing for Congress to pass the law before yearend. I checked the legislative calendar, there are 50 session days or less until end of the year. Some legislators say it can be done in one month if the opposition will not delay but you know of course this a controversial bill

A. Exactly the same argument the other side is saying. They are making sure hindi sasabit in order to hasten the passing of the bill in Congress. That’s fine with us but what is not acceptable to us is to sacrifice (the agreement) in order that the BBL will pass Congress. If the agreement will be diluted, derogated from, and all of a sudden we come up with a version of the BBL which is the same as the version of the Organic Act… of the ARMM… so we better accept the ARMM? (laughs). Sometimes we see that the version they are intending to have is even lower than the Organic Act so why will we settle for a BBL that is lower than Organic Act when even the President has already said that the ARMM is a failed experiment?

Q. Di na sana kayo nag negotiate? Pumayag na sana kayo sa “ for ”?

A. Yeah. We have been offered ARMM several times (under Estrada, Arroyo administrations)

Q. Wasn’t that directly offered to you in 2011?

A. Impliedly. Impliedly because they said maybe we can enhance, strengthen ARMM. That was also the reason why there was RA 9054, to enhance the ARMM but it even took out some of the powers already granted to the ARMM.

Q. Kaya sabi nila RA 9054 rendered the ARMM less autonomous than it already was, the future Bangsamoro will even be less than 9054?

A. That’s why they’re saying it will pass Congress smoothly because there is no more debate on it. But we cannot sacrifice (the agreement). As far as timeline is concerned, it really depends on Congress after this process (with ES Ochoa).

Q. The MNLF said the law passed (RA 9054) was not faithful to the letter and spirit of the 1996 agreement. The joke is if the ARMM were a failed experiment, the Bangsamoro is an aborted experiment.

A. What happened to Brother Nur is that I think they did not realize that even prior to the implementation of the 1996 agreement, they had already joined the government through the integration of their forces into the military and police and Nur accepted the governorship of ARMM, some of their commanders ran for mayor. So practically, di nga na-implement ang agreement but the reality is they already joined the government so it already became internal to them because they were inside government.

As of now, we are still another party. We refused to accept any position in government because we do not want to be part of government before the agreement will be implemented. We will only be part of government when the agreement is implemented.

Q. Let us grant that the BBL is passed but what if the law passed will be, like the MNLF’s experience with RA 9054, not faithful to the letter and sprit of the CAB?

A. Then the exit agreement will not be signed. That is the reason why in our mechanism, both panels will still be operational until the exit agreement is signed. Exit agreement, meaning everything is smoothly, satisfactorily implemented. So if the BBL that is passed by Congress is not acceptable to us (because it is not faithful to the letter and spirit of the CAB) then we have to resort to the mechanism of the panels… we cannot also allow the signing of the exit agreement. That means that will be another prolongation of the process

Q. In short, you will negotiate again?

A. It depends on the situation. If there is still a room for negotiation ..if we feel also that it is a waste of time negotiating, then maybe we will just find another option. We will see what are the options. There will be many options we can select from.

Q. Ano yung many options?

A. Hindi naman sabihin natin na ‘okay we will go back to fighting again’ because

Q. That is not an option?

That is not a closed option. But if we see there are still other options, we will go to the other options.

Q. The younger Moro are getting impatient and the elder ones are saying ‘niloloko lang tayo parati.’ Considering the history of the 1976 peace agreement then 1996 and now this one

A. There is always a limit to waiting… because this can be defined by the situation. Once the BBL will not be passed within the year or early next year, that means there is no more chance for the BTA (Bangsamoro Transition Authority) to be established .. that is one limit. If we see that there is no more chance, then it’s time to think of another way on how to move in this struggle.

Q. You said going back to fighting is not a closed option.

A. We have invested so much in the peace process. Imagine 17 years. We have to see to it that as long as there is still an opening of a chance for this investment, we will still go for that because we have invested a lot. But if …we feel that there is no more chance for this process, even though it’s very dear to us, we have to opt for other options.

Q. Going back to fighting is the last resort?

A. We are hoping very much that this (peace process) will succeed because we know our people are very hopeful that this will succeed. But then if it will not succeed, there are many options. We still can opt for other options, maybe peaceful options… Returning to armed struggle is of course another option, it is not a closed option because it can be an alternative option but …we will try to work out every effort in order na yung armed struggle will be the last option kung wala na kaming makikitang option.

 

Q. A major part of the post-agreement implementation is the passage of the Bangsamoro Basic law but there are other aspects not attended to anymore – Normalization, Transitional Justice because the focus is on BBL.

A. Normalization process will not actually be defined in detail in the BBL because it is a process so that’s why di muna mapag-usapan ngayon, just parts, In general, the formation of the Joint Normalization Committee and the other mechanisms are being discussed but the focus now, because of the time pressure, is more on the BBL

Q. The longer the delay in the passing of the law, the shorter the transition period. I remember the MILF initially asked for a seven-year transition period.

A. We have settled already on this compromise at least one year (transition) before the regular government so even though time is very limited, chances are we can have the BTA for at least one year.

Q. You actually believe the MILF can in one year or less prove its leadership – using ministerial form? Isn’t this crucial considering that there will be an election in May 2016?

It is doubtful, we accept that, but then we consider that part of the struggle… We know it is not enough but as long as we have proof to the people that the MILF is really working for the benefit of the people, then we are looking forward to also empowerment in the regular election in 2016. We see it as another level in the struggle.

Q. Last year you said you had set the stage for the organization of a political party. What’s the status now and what will be the party’s name?

A. We are on the final stage of finalizing the upper level structure and now we are going down, organizing the provincial level and the municipal level.There are three names (we are choosing from) and it depends on the Comelec (Commission on Elections): United Bangsamoro Justice Party, United Bangsamoro Party, or the Bangsamoro Justice

Party but the number one is the United Bangsamoro Justice Party.

Q. Let us go back to your ‘levels of struggle.’

A. The struggle now for us is to protect the political agreement. The first process now is with the Office of the President, the second phase is Congress and probably another phase would be the Supreme Court.

Q. You are not ruling that out?

A. We are not ruling out that somebody may file a complaint in the Supreme Court

Q. So that means you may not have a transition period at all?

A. That’s why as I said, we still have the process, built in process there and we will see what can be done if we have no more time for the transition.

Q. What can be done?

A. We can ask the other side ‘what do you think can be done?’ 

Q. But if the BBL is not passed, we’re going back to RA 9054 (ARMM) and May 2016 is an election year…

A. Mahirap mag-speculate because we do not know what would be …. but as far as the MILF is concerned, we will stick to the agreement. It (transition) has to be at least one year.

 

Q. Let us grant that the Supreme Court says there is no problem with the BBL but in the plebiscite, only three provinces approve the BBL.

A. If the plebiscite is conducted and we are convinced that hindi nagkaroon ng manipulation, then we are willing to accept what the people would say because it is a process. But then our struggle to have the core territory stipulated in the agreement is still there.

Q. This is one of the non-negotiables?

A. Yes because the core territory is defined (in the CAB). But it does not mean we will force the electorate. We will not. But we will still claim that as part of the core territory and we will find means in order for them to accept the Bangsamoro.

Q. To win them over later? So you’re saying that if Sakur Tan or Sulu will vote against the BBL, Sulu will still be part of the core territory but the BBL will not apply there?

A. Yes. And then the process would not end because … they can at anytime also opt for inclusion. But that’s another study for us, that’s why the peace process is a continuing

Q. Let’s grant that the BBL is passed, the plebiscite is conducted, you have three or four provinces, you have very limited time to prove yourself in the BTA and then you have the election in May 2016. You’re a new party, you don’t have all the resources, you will not win.

A. Well if that is the real will of the people then for us we accept it. But our struggle will not end there. For now, what is important for us is the system will be in place, that what is stipulated in the agreement is in place (so) even if.. we cannot win in the regular election, we still have the political party. It is not the end to the political party so we can still struggle through the political party.

Q. The disappointments over the peace process have been so many, how can you at age 66 still ..

A. You know one thing we have to emphasize is that although armed struggle is a very important and major factor in the struggle.. ultimately.. there are three situations that could happen: you defeat your enemy or you negotiate with the enemy or you are defeated by the enemy. So even if we go for another armed struggle or another war,  ultimately if we cannot defeat the enemy then we will be going back to negotiation again so it’s just a cycle. It will be a very expensive cycle …. but then I think that some younger people now are starting to accept that we exhaust all means for this negotiation.. We have spent 17 years already in this negotiation so we exhaust it but when exhausted, we have to be ready also for the other options… That is also what we are advising the people that as long as we have not yet closed the door for the negotiation.. we have to push this process in order for it to succeed.

 

Q. We went to Datu Piang, another reporter went to Lanao and another went to Pikit and fear among the communities if the problems over the draft BBL are not resolved is really palpable. How do you allay their fears?

A. We continuously gather our officers for them to reach the grassroots level, to explain that even though we should prepare ourselves for whatever eventualities… we are exhausting all means in order that this peace process will still succeed. We always impress on them that the MILF will not sell out the aspirations of the Bangsamoro, that we are assuring them (that) even though we are seemingly engaging in the negotiations for too long already, we will not sell out the aspirations of the Bangsamoro.

Q. The MNLF got a bigger area of autonomy and as Nur would say the MILF got only “five provinces not even the size of the Cotabato Empire of yore.” The Bangamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BFF) on the other hand is just waiting for this process to collapse to say ‘tingnan nyo, MILF, mali naman ang option ninyo.’

(see http://www.mindanews.com/peace-process/2014/08/27/murad-whats-happening-here-is-different-from-the-middle-east/)

A. Even the OIC (Organization of the Islamic Cooperation) was questioning us “you already have the 13 provinces before and nine cities (under the Tripoli Agreement of 1976), why did you accept the small area?” I explained to them that it is true that it is stipulated in the 1976 agreement that 13 provinces would form the original area of autonomy but then it is also stipulated that these will undergo the constitutional process so the reality is that… only five provinces went for autonomy. For us, we did not renounce the other areas but we accepted a whole area where it is acceptable to the people and then would open the door for the other areas to come in. 

Q. The Salamat Hashim formula. Salamat in April 2000 said that when Nur and he (Salamat was then MNLF vice chair in the negotiations that led to the signing of the Tripoli Agreement of 1976) were negotiating with government, he opted for a smaller area, only those Moro-dominated but Nur wanted the 13 provinces and nine cities (now 15 provinces and 15 cities). Salamat was more practical at that point kasi sure siya na hindi nyo makukuha yung ibang areas

A. If we consider also the 13 provinces and 9 cities now… what is the population balance? The Bangsamoro will only be about maximum 30% within this area, so you are not addressing the problem of the minority because this a problem of a minority in a majority setting. So if the (area of) autonomy is the entire 13 provinces and 9 cities then the Bangsamoro is still minority. It is very logical that it’s not solving the problem because you are still a minority. Ultimately, the autonomy will not be for the Bangsamoro, it will be for the majority.

(On the Bangsamoro as majority and the Lumads in the Bangsamoro as minority– http://www.mindanews.com/peace-process/2014/08/27/murad-to-lumads-we-will-not-repeat-the-situation-where-a-majority-will-oppress-the-minority/)

Q. You’ve signed the CAB but you’re negotiating again. Never ending negotiations?

A. Well it is part of the struggle. But even the sea has its limit. There is always a limit.

Q. Government and the MILF are doing face-saving but both of you know that saving the peace process is not just about saving faces.

A. It’s not really face-saving … because …even if we fail in this process … for us everything is still there: our organization is intact, we have not bartered anything because we will only barter when the agreement is already implemented. For us, it’s not really face-saving but it is really a desire for the peace process to succeed because if it will not succeed, we know what we will be the eventuality. It could be very costly … not only to the government but also to the Bangsamoro people so that’s why we are exhausting all means. 

Q. It’s not just you and the government investing, it’s also the communities, the foreign governments investing in the peace process here

A. Yeah. Well we know that the foreign governments are also trying their best to maybe they think of their own interest also… 

Q. If we go to the worst case scenario of no BTA, no acceptable Basic Law, the mechanisms that also involve the international community are still there so

A. That will be the first option, to let the mechanism work because after all, all these mechanisms were structured to protect the implementation process. We always had that in mind that the implementation is more difficult and more challenging. That is why we have the ICG (International Contact Group), the Third Party Monitoring Team, we have all these mechanisms to ensure the implementation. If something goes wrong, that is the first thing we will turn to, for the mechanisms to do their part in this process.

Q. You know that the President is suffering from so many problems including an impeachment, the declaration of DAP as unconstitutional and might suffer another Supreme Court decision on EDCA so he will not want to risk a BBL that might be declared unconstitutional.

A. I think that is a contributory to the effort that they want to trim down the draft BBL to ensure there will be no complication.

Q. Every administration wants to leave a legacy and that is the Bangsamoro peace. Under the Arroyo administration, there was the initialed MOA-AD (Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain) whose signing was aborted. Now President Aquino has

A. All administrations want to have the legacy that they solved the Bangsamoro problem but unless there is a real solution to this, no one can claim legacy. Ramos cannot claim legacy because until now the problem is here. Estrada also cannot claim, Arroyo also cannot claim legacy and even President Aquino now, if this problem will not be solved and ultimately nothing will happen, then he cannot claim legacy. Signing an agreed document is nothing, it’s just a mere piece of paper if not implemented. The bottomline is to implement it.

Q. How do you imagine June 30 2016 when President Aquino bows out of office. If everything goes right, can you imagine a Bangssamoro the way that the agreements envision it to be?

A. We see it a start of another level of struggle because it’s a different situation. We have to continue the struggle in order to sustain the aspiration because it does mean that when there is a Bangsamoro government, that it is already the realization of the aspiration and dreams of the Bangsamoro. It is still a start of building that realization. That’s why I keep on saying that you don’t imagine that when we are in the Bangsamoro government, everything is finished. It is another level of struggle wherein maybe you don’t need to use the guns but the objective there is to build a genuine and lasting peace for our people, prosperity for our people. That will be another hard and difficult struggle. 

Q. Is the BTA chief minister going to be Al Haj Murad Ebrahim?

A. Hindi pa decided hanggang ngayon. Because personally for me, hindi ko ini-envision na ako. What is important is I will still remain as the chairman of the MILF and then I can designate form among the members of the Central Committee kung sino ang mamumuno sa BTA.

Q. Galing sa Central Committee?

A. Of course it will come from the Central Committee but depende na rin sa decision ng Central Committee.

Q. In my long interviews with MNLF chair Nur Misuari and the late MILF chair Salamat Hashim, I asked this as a last question so I’ll ask you also: how would you like history to judge you?

A. For me.. what is important is I have done the best I can under this struggle. This is not my struggle, it is the struggle of the Bangsamoro people. What is important is for history to judge me according to what I have done for the struggle. (Carolyn O. Arguillas / MindaNews)

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