Esperon: Peace process first

Esperon, who was brigade commander during the “all-out war” against the MILF in 2000, and whom President Arroyo called “the hero of Rajah Muda” when he assumed the post of chief of staff last Friday, said they are mandated by a policy decision “to put primacy to the peace process” and to ensure it is not derailed.

“We have to marry the two, the policy and what is on the ground,” he said.

Esperon said he is confident “the mechanisms we have now” in Maguindanao – the installation of buffer zones — will work.

Clashes between armed members of the Civilian Volunteers Organzation (CVOs) in Maguindanao and elements of the MILF under the 105th Base Command between June 28 and July 6, killed an undetermined number of combatants, displaced at least 4,000 families, left at least 192 houses burned, and threatened not only the peace in Maguindanao but also the entire peace process itself.

Esperon said there have been significant gains in the peace process and that recorded skirmishes between government and MILF forces had gone down from around 600 in 2003 to only about three this year, including the recent Maguindanao clashes.

Esperon said mechanisms of control over the CVOs whose members are supposed to be unarmed, have to be coordinated with the police and the local government units. The AFP has no control over the CVOs. Supposedly unarmed, the CVOs are under the control of governors and mayors.

The government and the MILF peace panels hope to sign an agreement before the year ends if they had met their timetable of signing the ancestral domain agreement by March. The two panels, however, have yet to complete verifications on the ground.

The policy on the primacy of the peace process was issued on March 17, 2003, by President Arroyo, following the Buliok war a month earlier. It came in the form of a memorandum on the “Strategic Implications of Tactical Operations” and mandated the AFP to “uphold the primacy of pursuing, protecting and preserving the peace process.”

The war set back the peace negotiations. Instead of moving on to the formal peace talks level, the two panels have had to hold a series of exploratory talks.

The Buliok war, launched on the Islamic Feast of the Holy Sacrifice, Eid’l Adha, on February 11, 2003, came a day after the government peace panel submitted to the House Speaker, the Senate President and the President through the Executive Secretary, its draft final peace agreement with the MILF.

The military mounted attacks on supposed lairs of kidnap-for-ransom gangs but days later, officials admitted the attacks were against the MILF. A Joint Communique, however, had earlier been issued, on May 6, 2002, precisely creating the mechanism – the Ad Hoc Joint Action Group – that would run after kidnappers and criminal elements in so-called “MILF areas.”

On November 12, 2003, then Armed Forces Chief of Staff Narciso Abaya issued “AFP Guidelines on the Primacy of the GRP-MILF Peace Process.”

“The purpose of the Peace Process is not totally incompatible with the objectives of security operations but one complements the other.  Peace negotiation may not mean having an agreement at all costs but merely rationalizes the activities in the Peace Process. In view of the strategic importance of sustaining the peace process, particularly with the MILF and the projected position of the government and the AFP to champion such peace process, the AFP will help ensure that the implementation of the cessation of hostilities on the ground will significantly contribute to the success of the government’s effort to attain a just comprehensive and lasting peace settlement with the MILF,” the three-page guidelines began.

A very important guideline, in fact, its text is in boldface, is Guideline A5 which provides that “all commanders must always be aware of the strategic implications of their tactical actions on the ground.” In case of doubt, it added, “they shall seek clearance first from higher commanders before initiating any military actions.”

In the pursuit, protection and preservation of the peace process, the AFP’s operational mode “will be purely on active defense;” that at operational and tactical levels, all commanders are directed to “give their utmost cooperation to support the different coordinative ceasefire mechanisms in the performance of its mandate and functions.”

The guidelines also pointed to the PNP as the “lead role in confronting all criminal syndicates and kidnap for ransom groups including the so-called ‘Lost Commands’ in coordination with the Ad Hoc Joint Action Group”  and that the AFP “shall be in supporting role to the PNP.”

Commanders are to ensure the safety of  “all duly accredited MILF members in possession of safe conduct pass and honor their immunity guarantee.”

The guidelines also urge commanders to “always avoid possible irritants that may undermine the gains of the peace negotiations.”

Thus, commanders are to “consult and refer cases” of alleged ceasefire violations to the government’s Coordinating Committee on the Cessation of Hostilities. (Carolyn O. Arguillas/MindaNews)