Paterno: Involve biz sector in GPH-MILF peace process

MAKATI CITY (MindaNews/07 May) —  The national business sector should be involved in the ongoing peace process between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), former Senator and Trade Secretary Vicente Paterno told MindaNews after a nearly three-hour forum with the MILF peace panel at the Asian Institute of Management Friday afternoon.

“We should get the national business community to become involved. I think the negotiations are being left up to the panel of lawyers,” Paterno said, adding the panels should “listen to inputs” because of the “legitimate interest even from the standpoint of Manila in having a peace agreement accomplished.”

He said they will “talk among ourselves” to “develop a set of inputs within the year.”

There are only two lawyers in the government and MILF peace panels: government chair Marvic Leonen who is also Dean of the University of the Philippines College of  Law and MILF senior panel member Datu Michael Mastura.

The forum, which gathered some 70 executives from the Management Association of the Philippines and from Makati’s business district, civil society representatives and graduate students,   was organized by the Mindanao Business Council (MinBC), International Alert, Mindanao Peoples Caucus and AIM Center for Development Management.

Friday’s forum was part of a series of consultations with non-Moro sectors by the MILF peace panel.

Apparently learning from the lessons of the botched signing of the already initialed Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD) in 2008, which was eventually declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court citing lack of consultations, among others, both government and MILF peace panels have been holding separate consultations with various stakeholders.

Since March, the MILF peace panel has sat down with the non-Moro constituents,  among them Protestant leaders and Catholic bishops, the Mindanao business sector and indigenous peoples. The government peace panel on the other hand,  consulted with  local officials in Maguindanao and Sultan Kudarat provinces in April and is scheduling yet another round of consultations this month in Mindanao, in preparation for the June 27 to 28 talks in Kuala Lumpur, the third “formal” exploratory talks under the Aquino administration. The next talks will also see government handing over its counterproposal to the MILF peace draft.

Good start

Lawyer Jesus Dureza,  former Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process and the Arroyo administration’s first peace panel chair, from January 2001 to May 2003 and who was present at the forum, told MindaNews it was “a good start, engaging an important layer in the equation – right here  in the hub of the country’s big business. We hope the government panel does the same soon so it completes the whole picture.”

In his opening statement in Kuala Lumpur on April 27, at the 21st exploratory talks with the MILF (although only the second under the Aquino administration), Leonen said they have had 24 consultations with various sectors “in the past few months” and lauded the MILF’s decision to conduct consultations with non-Moro groups. “We understand that you have schedules with the Makati Business Club and many other prominent Manila based organizations after this round of talks.  As I have stated informally with some members of civil society, this decision to come out publicly with the contours of your proposed Comprehensive Compact should cause a national discussion on a national issue: how to solve the Bangsamoro problem.  It can complement our efforts. It will also help us–and our direct principal–to gauge the public pulse on political decisions that need to be taken.  Your consultations are complementary to ours.”

The business sector is actually represented in the Aquino government peace panel by former Agriculture Secretary Senen Bacani. In fact, it is the first time in the history of the peace negotiations with the Bangsamoro fronts since 1974, that the business sector is represented.

MinBC chair Vicente Lao, who gave the closing remarks, did away with his prepared speech to “speak from the heart.”

“It is not always the business of business to interfere in political exercises like this because business would like to be left alone and just make money without interference, even from government,” he began.

Lao narrated how he as a young boy, he “enjoyed the environment” in Mindanao but how, later, the island went through several conflicts and how this seemingly never-ending conflict narrative has  “lasted for so many years we have gone down from the second most prosperous nation in Asia to second from the bottom.”

Out of the quagmire

He said the countryside in other Asian countries is no different from Mindanao’s but “how come we cannot get out of this quagmire?”

“How come both sides cannot solve this problem? I have to admit business sector and the community at large in Mindanao had very little knowledge when government started negotiating with the other side. We feel it’s about time business gets involved. If we don’t, we are always the one affected by crossfire,” Lao added.

“We are not here to give you a solution but to provide a forum so that both sides can articulate what they want. What we want in Mindanao, basically, is peace. When you talk of peace, everyone seems to be of the same aspirations, in concurrence (so) how come we don’t have peace on the ground?” he asked.

He said they discussed in MinBC to “look at the agreement being presented on both sides. Let us remove our biases and deep wounds. … look at it objectively on the overall benefit to community. “

“People from Mindanao would appreciate more the presentation of the MILF because even as a business group in Mindanao, we also feel the oppression of Imperial Manila in Mindanao,” said Lao, repeating what he declared in the MILF forum with Mindanao business executives on March 31 that the line that separates the aspirations of the business sector and the MILF is “a very thin line” because a lot of decision-making for Mindanao is still being done in Manila.

He said the business sector is “trying to help” in the peace process, so that at the end of the day, “the whole country will benefit from it.”

Lao cited statistics, that out of the 10 poorest provinces in the country, six are in Mindanao, four in the ARMM. “There is something wrong along the way which we need to address.”

He said residents in Metro Manila may say “we don’t care” because Mindanao is far from them anyway, but “you have to remember that every year, the country spends billions of pesos for the problem in Mindanao,” adding, “if we did not have to spend that, we should not have been second from bottom. The problem has gone on too long,” he said.

Difficult

Benjamin Punongbayan, founder and chair of the Punongbayan and Araullo accounting firm,  asked the first question. “I am really happy I am here to attend this and be able to understand more deeply the problems we are trying to sort out,” he said.

Punongbayan noted that the process to reach a peace settlement has been going on for quite some time so “what are the things that are very difficult to really agree upon that has delayed this process for so long?”

He  later stood up lamenting, “when I came here, I thought I would be able to understand the problems and contribute to some kind of exchange but I can see now how difficult it is,” he said, addressing the full panel led by MILF peace panel chair Mohagher Iqbal, particularly senior peace panel member Datu Michael Mastura.

Mastura “came too strong,”  Paterno said.  Mastura had felt insulted when a female business executive asked questions relayed to her, about Sabah, about Malaysia’s role in the peace process and “is the MILF not being used by Malaysia to further its occupation of Sabah?”

The soft-spoken Iqbal reminded the audience that the MILF had nothing to do with the entry of Malaysian in the peace process. He said former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo invited Malaysia to facilitate the talks.

But the fiery Mastura launched into a lecture on Bangsamoro history and said the question asked was “not fair,’ adding they “came here to talk about our draft (peace agreement).”

Mastura, however, appeared to have assumed everyone had read their draft agreement. No copy of the draft it submitted to the government peace panel in February was made available but copies of the January 2010 draft it submitted to the Arroyo administration and which, Mastura explained before the bishops on March 30, contains about 85% of the February 2011 draft,  were made available by the organizers.

In his opening remarks, Iqbal had said, “we are here to plead the case of our people and appeal to the conscience of men in this country…. We expect your response to be no less exciting. We know the sector where you belong is the most pragmatic in many ways.”

Unlike the Davao meeting with Mindanao’s Catholic bishops and business executives, however, there was no Powerpoint presentation on the salient points of the 2011 peace draft which Leonen had earlier described as “not a document seeking independence.”

“We are not the panel”

Punongbayan said, “you are talking to us as if we are the government panel. We are here as ordinary citizens trying to understand your concerns, maybe campaign for something you should get but are deprived of” but “you are trying to cause a divide. You have already caused a divide.”

He said he wonders how they could help when “we came here to understand but you are already putting a divide.”

“Now I’m sorry if I put you on the defensive,” Mastura said. Later, he said, “sorry if we offend you,” but “there is an offense here. You are insulting us that we are being used by Malaysia.”

Aside from Punongbayan, Paterno, Dureza, also present were Bishop Ephraim Tendero, National Direcgtor of the Philippine Council on Evangelical Churches; Lt. Gen. Raymundo Ferrer, chief of the Western Mindanao Command and a graduate of the AIM’s Bridging Leadership Program; and Architect Felino “Jun” Palafox, president of the Managment Association of the Philippines, whose firm constructed the country’s largest mosque in Cotabato City.

Palafox said he chaired an interfaith conference in December 2009, that he had colleagues from Gawad Kalinga and representatives of various religions who wanted to do global peace villages, a global football park, etc. and that they went around the conflict-areas and “met an eight-year old boy who dreamt to be 10 to be given an armalite to eat three square meals a day.”

“We’d like to see them as doctors and architects in the future,” Palafox said, before asking, “would you help welcome and secure all these development initiatives from all over the world?”

Iqbal replied: “The best security for Mindanao is settle the problem.”

He reiterated the concluding portion of his opening remarks, that even as they want development to reach their localities, “the situation is not ready for it. The fighting has not gone away completely; what is holding the two armed protagonists, the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces to go for war is the ceasefire and resumption of the negotiations. More importantly, we want the Moro Question settled first before real development comes to our place. But this settlement is hard to secure; we need the help of everyone, especially the business sector like all of you here.”

Towards the end of the forum, Punongbayan again stood up to say he was “glad the posturing has changed from the way it started but I’m afraid it’s going back again. I think the wounds are very deep, I wish you the best….We came here as ordinary citizens… I hope both sides will be reasonable. I wish you success.”  (Carolyn O. Arguillas/MindaNews)

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