LETTER FROM MINDANAO: Malacanang’s flip-flop and the dangers around us

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/20 June) – If you listen to Secretary Ignacio Bunye, presidential spokesperson, say the appointment of Fr. Eliseo Mercado, Jr. as the new government peace panel chair, is “not yet final” and that the
announcement of his appointment did not come from him, you’d think he and Secretary Jesus Dureza, Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process, don’t serve the same master.

“Malacanang denies priest’s appointment,” the headlines read, quoting Bunye. Poor Jess. He’s not  “Malacanang.”

Dureza’s statements that Fr. Mercado “is still our choice” although he has ”no formal appointment” as yet,  that they are “still addressing the MILF concerns” are obviously face-saving statements. Whoever made the decision about Mercado did it so quickly it was literally a midnight appointment.  But Dureza’s statements cannot change the fact that Malacanang appointed Fr. Mercado as the new peace panel chair vice Secretary Silvestre Afable and as it turned out, it was not a popular decision after all. So Malacanang has to save face and poor Father Jun became “collateral damage.”

How could Bunye deny the appointment? Dureza, who heads the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process which has jurisdiction over the government peace panels, issued a four-paragraph statement afternoon of June 16 that “The Palace today announced that Fr. Eliseo Mercado, OMI will take over the chairmanship of the government panel in talks with the MILF” and that “the assumption of Fr. Mercado as panel chair will ensure a seamless transition and a continuity in the efforts to move forward the peace negotiations with the MILF.”

Bunye thinks all announcements should emanate from him, including this? Oh but if this were a turfing war, enough, gentlemen. The Bunye and Dureza statements only show the cracks within Malacanang and the eagerness of each secretary to wash his hands and save his butt, pardon the language. It also sidetracks us from the real issue behind the sudden changing of the peace panel chair.

The real issue is that the hawks in Malacanang — and the entire Cabinet knows who these hawks are – are not happy with the supposedly optimistic mood in the GRP-MILF peace process which Afable described on June 9 as on its “final stage.”

The real issue is that the hawks are not happy about the military and MILF becoming textmates out there in the field.

The real issue is that these hawks are not happy with the gains of the peace process and the gains have been many: uninterrupted schooling for children in erstwhile conflict-afftected areas, fewer evacuations, fewer “bakwits,” reduced number of skirmishes, improved economy and others enumerated in the speech of Brig. Gen. Edgardo Gurrea (see PeaceTalk ), chair of the government peace panel’s Coordinating Committee on the Cessation of Hostilities.

The real issue is that if these hawks are allowed to continue to hold the peace process hostage – as they are holding it hostage now, we’ll have to expect the worst scenarios, especially after June 21, when the interim guidelines of the May 6, 2002 Joint Communique that govern the Ad Hoc Joint Action Group (AHJAG), that joint military-MILF group that pursues criminals in so-called “MILF areas,” shall have expired.

You see, both panels were supposed to have met in May in Kuala Lumpur but did not because of the elections. They need to meet ASAP not only to resume talking about territory – the ancestral domain issue that led to the impasse in September last year – but also because they have to renew the guidelines. Without that,  the AHJAG has no mandate to operate.

MILF peace panel chair Mohagher Iqbal says they may require an AHJAG unit from the MILF to “continue” helping its government counterpart on the rescue of  kidnapped Italian priest Giancarlo Bossi “on humanitarian grounds.” Bossi was abducted June 10 in Zamboanga Sibugay.

The AHJAG is presently in the area pursuing the kidnappers.

Beyond that, the AHJAG has no mandate. Ergo, anyone can cook up scenarios of security threats, or build on previously announced terrorist threats, of criminals and terrorists going to “MILF areas” and since the AHJAG can’t move, guess what’s going to happen next: back to the usual military operations, ergo aerial bomb runs, mortars, evacuations.  

The hawks will have a field day applauding from the comforts of their airconditioned offices in Malacanang and in Mindanao.

The AHJAG, the Joint CCCH, the International Monitoring Team (IMT) led by Malaysia, the local monitoring teams, as well as the grassroots-led Bantay Ceasefire, are among the mechanisms that have helped much in the implementation of the ceasefire agreement.

Aside from AHJAG problem, the IMT also poses a problem because under the Terms Of Reference, its mandate ends September 8. But based on the past two IMT’s (what we have now is IMT-3), usually there is a gradual changeover of IMT personnel in July so that by end of August, only the head of mission, say the present IMT-3 Head of Mission, is left to do exit calls and to introduce the incoming Head Of Mission for IMT-4.

Unfortunately, there cannot be a turnover in September, there cannot be a “changeover” of personnel in July, if the government and MILF peace panels do not meet and extend the tour of duty of the IMT ASAP.

Without that extension,  IMT-3 will be left with no choice but to leave Mindanao. And the hawks will have a grand celebration.

Did President Arroyo know about these major AHJAG and IMT issues when she accepted Secretary Afable’s courtesy resignation? 

Does she know that Malaysia can, under the Terms of  Reference of the IMT, cease or suspend the  performance of their functions with due notice to the Philippine government and the MILF peace panels “in the event that the field situation becomes too dangerous and life-threatening to its members” or  “when either the GRP or MILF fails to fulfill their commitments and responsibilities to the peace process?”

“Primacy of the Peace Process,” Madame President?  You don’t know what that means. (MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. You may email the author at carol@mindanews.com This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it or visit www.carolynoarguillas.com).