DAVAO CITY (MindaNews /23 July) – From 2001 to 2003, lawyer Jesus Dureza, Presidential Assistant for Mindanao, sat across the negotiating table in Kuala Lumpur with Al Haj Murad Ebrahim, vice chair of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and chief of staff of the Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces, the former as government (GPH) peace panel chair, and the latter as chair of the MILF peace panel.
Early Thursday morning, July 21, Dureza, now Peace Adviser of the first Mindanawon President, Rodrigo Roa Duterte, sat across the breakfast table with Murad, now chair of the MILF, exchanging pleasantries over a selection of deep fried hito (catfish), pastil (steamed rice with shredded chicken, wrapped in banana leaves), boiled eggs, pan de sal and madang (milkfruit).
It was a reunion 13 years after they last met as panel chairs.
Dureza and Murad were the panel chairs when peace negotiations resumed in early 2001, after the talks that started in 1997 under the Ramos administration collapsed in 2000 with the declaration of an “all-out war” by then President Joseph Estrada.
When Estrada was ousted in January 2001 and Vice President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo took over as President, she declared an “all-out peace” and named Dureza, her Presidential Assistant for Mindanao, as her peace panel chair in the negotiations with the MILF.
Dureza became the first non-military chair of the GPH peace panel in the peace negotiations with the Moro since 1974, and specifically with the MILF since 1997. Previous peace panel chairs were retired military generals.
Murad, then MILF vice chair for military affairs and chief of staff of the Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces (BIAF) was the first military chair of the MILF peace panel since it entered into formal negotiations with the government in 1997.
From “all-out peace” to “Buliok war”
Arroyo’s “all-out peace” brought Dureza and Murad across the negotiating table. But it would be Arroyo’s “Buliok war” against the MILF that would finally set them apart.
The “all-out peace” policy was off to a good start with the signing of the Agreement of the General Framework for the Resumption of Peace Talks Between the GRP and the MILF on March 24, 2001 in Kuala Lumpur, the first agreement facilitated by Malaysia, and the Tripoli Agreement of 2001, the “mother of all agreements” in the GPH-MILF talks, in June that year in Tripoli, Libya.
Two more rounds of formal talks happened that same year in Kuala Lumpur.
The terrorist attack on September 11, 2001 in the United States, however, would take its toll on the Bangsamoro peace process when the Philippines became the “second front” in the United States’ “war on terror.”
Arroyo suspended the talks in March 2002 but sent Norberto Gonzalez, Presidential Advisre for Special Concerns to do back-channeling efforts, even letting Gonzales sign some of the agreements, such as the May 6, 2002 Joint Communique on the Ad Hoc Joint Action Group.
Threats that they would be labeled a terrorist group prompted then MILF chair Salamat Hashim to write US President George Bush on January 20, 2003 that the MILF is “a national liberation organization, with leadership supported by the Bangsamoro People, and with legitimate political goal to pursue the right of the Moro Nation to determine their future and political status.”
By early February 2003, residents in Pikit North Cotabato started fleeing their homes following the arrival of government troops in their area, just as Dureza and his panel were presenting their draft peace proposal to then Senate President Franklin Drilon and House Speaker Jose de Venecia.
Alerted by what was happening on the ground, Dureza appealed for sobriety and urged the security cluster in the Cabinet to hold their fire. He set a meeting with Murad’s panel in Cotabato City for February 12 but the MILF did not show up. A day earlier, on the feast of Eid’l Adha, ground and air attacks were launched in Buliok, Pagalungan in Maguindanao and neighboring Pikit town purportedly to serve arrest warrants on members of the Pentagon kidnap-for-ransom group allegedly being harbored in MILF areas.
Then Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes was called to the Senate to explain the Buliok operations that displaced thousands of civilians, including more than half of Pikit’s population.
Dureza resigned on May 9, 2003. In his five-paragraph letter to President Arroyo, he said that “due to the current status of the talks and the urgency of attending to Your Excellency’s directive to fast-track development efforts,” he believes he can “give my best if I can be relieved of my tasks as chairman of the panel and concentrate on the equally important work of taking full charge of your development thrusts in Mindanao.”
Before he resigned, Dureza’s last act in the government peace efforts with the MILF was as head of delegation to the “exploratory talks with the MILF in Kuala Lumpur where they signed a “Joint Statement” on March 28, 2003 to resume the talks.
For those keenly watching the developments in the peace process then, Dureza’s resignation was “long overdue,” as veteran columnist Patricio Diaz said.
Eid Kabalu, then the MILF spokesperson, said Dureza was “bypassed many times” by the government back channel negotiator.
Mohagher Iqbal, then MILF information chief, said his resignation was good because “he was being sacrificed.”
Dureza told MindaNews then: “well, they can say anything but really, this is (resignation) is something that I had been wanting to do.”
Years later, recalling the challenges he faced as chief peace negotiator, Dureza would tell peace advocates that sometimes, it was easier to negotiate with the other side (MILF) than within government itself.
Warrants of arrest
Murad, meanwhile, was faced with warrants of arrest, along with other MILF officials (including MILF chair Salamat Hashim) for, among others, multiple murder with multiple frustrated murder in connection with the March 4 airport and April 2 seaport bombings in Davao City that left 38 persons dead and 200 others injured.
The bombings were blamed on the MILF, which repeatedly denied the allegations. A spokesperson of the Abu Sayyaf claimed responsibility for the March 4 bombing but Reyes refused to believe the claim.
Efforts to return to the negotiating table were intensified and on July 19, 2003, the effects of the warrants of arrest against Hashim, Murad and company were suspended as the complaint for murder with frustrated multiple murder was forwarded to the Department of Justice for review.
Six days earlier, however, Hashim had passed away in Lanao del Sur due to an illness that got complicated in the aftermath of the Buliok war. Hashim’s death was kept from the public until August 4, 2003 when MILF Vice Chair for Political Affairs Ghazali Jaafar confirmed Hashim had passed away on July 13.
Jaafar also announced that Murad was now the MILF chair and Iqbal took over as peace panel chair.
In 2004, Murad and company were cleared of the charges of multiple murder and frustrated murder, according to resolution issued by then Justice Secretary Merceditas Gutierrez.
Dureza served in other capacities under the Arroyo administration until June 30, 2010. (Carolyn O Arguillas / MindaNews)