Fr. Mercado urged to be mediator instead of gov’t negotatiator

Father Angel Calvo, a Catholic priest himself and lead convenor of the Mindanao PeaceWeavers, an umbrella organization of several peace coalitions, said, “building confidence is essential for peace process and chair position is crucial. We must listen to the MILF feelings.”

MILF spokesperson Mohagher Iqbal on Sunday said the appointment of Fr. Mercado as new peace panel chair vice Secretary Silvestre Afable is “a setback.”

“We respect and highly regard him (Fr. Mercado) but the job is strictly state matters. There is separation of church and state in the Philippines,” he said.

Fr. Mercado declined to comment on Iqbal’s statement, citing protocol.

Former Presidential Peace Adviser Teresita Quintos-Deles told MindaNews she was surprised by the turn of events given that she met with Afable Thursday and “he was very optimistic” about the talks.

Deles said there was no hint at all that he would resign.

On the naming of Fr. Mercado as Afable’s replacement, Deles said, “negotiators – including the best of them – cannot carry a peace process just by themselves.  A peace process needs to be delivered by the entire government. Secretary Afable’s resignation indicates there were deep problems in the level of Malacanang. If Secretary Afable, who had full access to the President came to the decision that he could no longer push it, it’s hard to think of who can do better than him.”

Deles said the  MILF’s negative feedback “adds to the problem which I think, however, is not impossible to overcome, but right from the start, certainly makes (Fr. Mercado’s) task more difficult.

Dominguo Duerme, president of the Davao City Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Inc., said he has not surveyed the sentiments of the business community “but I know personally Fr. Eliseo Mercado. He was my schoolmate in Notre Dame University. Brilliant and principled. He has been assigned in Muslim communities like Datu Piang and was past president of Notre Dame University. He has a long history of association and in fact lived with Muslims. I think he’s the perfect choice.”

For Guiamel Alim, executive director of the Consortium of Bangsamoro Civil Society, Fr. Mercado should not back out if he has a “win-win” formula.

‘The MILF earlier said that it doesn’t’ really matter who the negotiators are on the other side. They should not also invoke the doctrine of separation of church and state. If (Fr. Mercado) has a win-win (formula), he should not back out. I think he knows pretty well the agenda of the MILF,” he said.

Lawyer Zen Malang, executive director of the Moro Law and Policy Center, said Fr. Mercado should reconsider his acceptance of the post. “Let all the stakeholders sort out first how to deal with the opposition faced by Sec. Afable in pushing the peace agenda in the Cabinet, problems that compelled him to leave the panel in the first place. Merely replacing him with Fr. Jun Mercado without addressing that issue will only deodorize the problem.”

Former party-list Rep. Patricia Sarenas also says Fr. Mercado should reconsider because he “can best serve the cause of peace as advisor to both panels.”

“I guess we should consider the reasons why the MILF would not want a Catholic priest to head the GRP,” she said.

MindaNews asked several priests on what they think of Fr. Mercado as the new government peace panel chair. Many expressed reservations “due to wide-ranging implications,” among them the fact that he would be “bringing the government position” which is not necessarily that of the Church or the faithful.

The priests said that with Fr. Mercado representing government, “Church may be perceived on government side rather than on side of justice and peace and thus become ineffective as mediator. Clergy should be advocate and mediator, not negotiator,” the priests said.

Lawyer Mary Ann Arnado, deputy executive director of the Initiatives for International Dialogue, a member-institution of the Mindanao Peoples’ Caucus and Mindanao PeaceWeavers, said Fr. Mercado “should have used some consultations among peace networks and church leaders so he gets a more grounded assessment of the implications of a Catholic priest negotiating the position of the Philippine government to the MILF and how that impacts on grassroots inter-religious efforts.”

Prof. Abhoud Syed Lingga, executive director of the Institute of Bangsamoro Studies, said, “good intentions are not enough. In negotiations, you have to consider power dynamics within the government and the dynamics among the principal parties and facilitators. The problem with the appointment of Jun Mercado as chief government negotiator is it is shrouded in controversy at the beginning. To clear the controversies will take time. This will drag the talks longer. Considering that the AHJAG (Ad Hoc Joint Action Group) mandate will expire June 21, and IMT (International Monitoring Team) mandate in August or September, there will be difficulties in sustaining the ceasefire. It will be statesmanship on the part of Jun Mercado to spare the president from a difficult situation arising from his appointment. He will truly be a peace-builder by avoiding controversies.”

But Lingga added that he blames the advisers of President Arroyo for “the rush in accepting Sec. Afable’s resignation and the rush in getting replacement. In international diplomacy, you have to find out first if the ambassador you appoint is acceptable to the host country or not before you announce the appointment.” (Carolyn O. Arguillas with a report from Walter I. Balane/MindaNews)

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