Punongbayan for “more autonomous Muslim Mindanao” but wants clearer view of Bangsamoro sub-state

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/09 May) – A senior Makati-based business executive said Friday’s forum with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) peace panel gave him a “better understanding of the broad picture of the problem” but “not a clear understanding of the more important specific issues relating to the formation of the Bangsamoro sub-state.”

But Benjamin Punongbayan, founder and chair of the accounting firm, Punongbayan and Araullo, in response to MindaNews’ e-mailed queries said Monday afternoon that the forum also gave him a “better understanding of the strongly-felt sentiments of the MILF panel about their desire to ‘run their own affairs,’” which reaffirmed his “belief of acceding to MILF’s request for a more autonomous Muslim Mindanao, provided that its form is reasonable and acceptable to all concerned.”

“I will encourage and support an agreement to that effect, and which will withstand the test of time and will protect the security of the entire Philippine state,” he wrote.
Punongbayan, who attended the nearly three-hour forum at the Meralco case room of the Asian Institute of Management (AIM), has asked the first question and later stood up to say “we are not the government panel” to senior MILF peace panel member Datu Michael Mastura who, in the words of former Senator and Trade Secretary Vicente Paterno, “came in so strong.”
Former government peace panel chair Jesus Dureza, who was also present in Friday’s forum, wrote in his May 8 column, Advocacy MindaNOW, titled “MILF ‘invades’ Makati,” that Mastura “in his usual passionate manner, was engaging everyone candidly, at times uncomfortably condescending just to drive home a point. He was forceful in his assertions why the Bangsamoro right to self determination is an inherent birthright of the Moro.”
When he rose to ask the first question, Punongbayan said, “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.”
Why delayed? He noted that the process to reach a peace settlement has been going on for quite some time and wanted to know “what are the things that are very difficult to really agree upon that has delayed this process for so long?”
But Punongbayan later stood up to say, “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 Mastura.

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

He 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.

Not clear

Punongbayan told MindaNews he wasn’t able to read the  (January 2010) draft which was distributed to the participants before the start of the forum but he read it afterwards and “I still do not have a clear understanding of the more important specific issues relating to the formation of the Bangsa Moro sub-state in spite of my reading of the Draft.”
Punongbayan wrote he was “still unclear regarding what I thought are some of the important issues relating to the formation of a Bangsa Moro sub-state,” naming six of these issues as: “the exact or clear definition of the proposed boundaries or territorial jurisdiction of the sub-state; adherence and compliance by the sub-state to the Philippine Constitution; a clearer definition or description of the relationship between the Central Government and the sub-state; a clearer expression of the continuing military presence of the Central Government in the sub-state; clear agreement of the important provisions regarding the likely movement of people from the sub-state to outside the sub-state (Christians) and from outside the sub-state to the sub-state (Muslims); whether or not the government of the sub-state is secular, which means adherence to the principle of separation of church and state that is embedded in the Philippine Constitution.”

At the forum last Friday, Punongbayan, apparently addressing Mastura, 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.”
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.”

Political settlement first

MindaNews e-mailed Punongbayan on Saturday morning to ask if he came out of the forum with a better understanding of the problem as he had hoped for at the start, or if the forum caused even more confusion. MindaNews also asked how the business sector could help solve the conflict, how it can help heal what he described in the forum as “very deep wounds” and how it can help bridge the divide.

“As to the assistance of the business sector, or more broadly, about helping the economic development of Muslim Mindanao prior to adoption of the peace agreement, my sense is such a development does not appear to be a priority in the minds of the MILF.  If I remember correctly, Chairman Mohagher Iqbal expressed something to that effect during the Forum.  The MILF Panel wants a political settlement first and foremost,” he wrote.

“The consent of the MILF is necessary for any meaningful activities that any Philippine group may want to carry out immediately towards the economic development of Muslim Mindanao.  But I have the impression that they may not cooperate wholeheartedly in this regard,” he said.

Iqbal in the concluding portion of his opening remarks, said 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.”

In the open forum, Iqbal said, “In a conflict situation, you can’t put investments..it is not practical to put investment there… we want (the conflict) settled first.”
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, International Alert, Mindanao Peoples Caucus and AIM Center for Development Management. (Carolyn O. Arguillas/MindaNews)

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