COMMENTARY: MILF's Counterpoint and its Uses. By Datu Michael O. Mastura

Well, I’m curious if it has created a necessary threshold for policy positions as Putra Jaya reacts to both internal and external stimuli.  My interest is the measure of consistency in KL’s intermediary role in GRP-MILF (Government of the Republic of  the Philippines-Moro Islamic Liberation Front) peace talks.  DPM Najib’s stint as Defense Minister was adroit in regional security relations where our ungovernable borders intersect.  We’ve been impressed about it firsthand.  MILF’s counterpoint legitimacy using the DPM’s proximity to parliamentary power contributed a great deal of effective political capital tied up to the IMT (International Monitoring Team) mission in Mindanao.

People are wary about ‘role ambiguity’ leading to KL’s pull out of the Malaysian-led-IMT contingent last year.  This reflects not just the swings in the public mood but disconnects the web of contacts in ‘back channel’ talks.  Cessation of hostilities is not some abstract issue to a Head of State or a Head of Government.  That extends to politics and diplomacy. “If there’s no progress in the peace process, it also fails to provide accountability for IMT’s overseeing mandate,” DPM Najib was once quoted.  Then he went on to ask: “So what is the point for Malaysian ceasefire monitors to stay on?”  Nothing is left to circuitous indecision, of course.  Or moral equivalence intended. 

Pragmatically, MILF informed leaders pursue the peace process so that the international community could comprehend its goal.  In the reality of international life, top MILF leadership is keen to enhance its diplomatic representation for a negotiated settlement as the path to their goal.  To catch the eye of worldwide audiences, our discourses use comparative legal jargons and the norms of international law. 

I’m pretty sure we all scored points on the outcome of the GRP-MILF peace talks because of insisting on a legal framework to bring the process to a close.  Why then traduce the facilitating function of Kuala Lumpur or the personality role of the Malaysian intermediary?  Steps aimed at facilitating GRP-MILF negotiating process have so far been characterized by flexibility, which the Manila Declaration highlights as a means of peaceful settlement of dispute.  

President Gloria Arroyo’s Letter (2/27) to PM Badawi proposes to improve on “the nature and structure of the facilitation process.”  Her new Presidential Adviser on Peace Process Avelino Razon made a full disclosure of the contents.  It’s not my place to fix an inescapable logic of GRP’s position.  This goes a bit complicated for reporting at one point where the process is the forest.  Here former PM Tony Blair is only a tree.  But it seems that spin doctors harped on the “eminent persons” angle to make it look like a concrete step in the procedure.  Still, we fear, there are some snags to unravel by using weapons disposal as a quid pro quo.  MILF’s demilitarization counterpoint to circumvent DDR as an overall framework is less as an aspect of the processes than as precondition for capitulations.   

Government has reconstituted its negotiating panel with a career diplomat, Rafael Seguis, as chief negotiator.  The critical factor is that Ambassador Seguis does not confuse his role for an envoy engaged in bilateral talks.  Why the GRP side was no closer to ‘getting talks going’ with their offsite meetings at Wisma Putra may be noted as a brief closing parenthesis.  But of course what else has been ‘going on the rounds’ that much remain props-synching when effectiveness will be used later?   

At the start of this year Othman bin Abdul Razak’s mandate was properly renewed as an intermediary.  To be honest about it, the ‘quiet use of facilities’ of the Malaysian Secretariat for GRP-MILF peace talks may be far more effective than rushing “about” in all directions at the Foreign Ministry.  What third party facilitation is “about” boils down to effectiveness; for, it turns out as another characteristic of negotiation criteria of the Manila Declaration (37/10). Yes, going public for consultation requires a vetting time-frame for effective process.  Ask first who calls the shots?  Would GRP get approval at every juncture to take vital decisions or make concessions without going back to the cabinet cluster or senate committee? That’s precisely why we’re unmoved to shift to intensive negotiation approach.   

The outcome or chances of success of the direct negotiation is essentially a relative one.  A third party facilitator cannot impose himself upon the parties.  As a diplomatic practice, under the Pact of Bogota, recourse to “one or more eminent citizens” (not a party to the conflict) is an accepted method to reduce the elements of contention.  But it has to be said, in MILF thinking, a Protocol on a number of critical points is a preferred parameter for quasi-constitutional projects.

Ebrahim Murad, Ghazali Jafaar and Mohagher Iqbal and top leaders in the Central Committee have all impressed us on the need for “international guarantee” to restore trust.  This invites serious diplomatic work. The thinking behind it requires deeper understanding of the MILF position.  I think Turkey’s recent initiatives could serve the purpose to provide the political context that shapes contemporary Islamist response to political participation. Likewise, the EU Parliament resolution (3/12) on the Mindanao situation could nurture the readiness of the European Council and the Commission, if requested, to support the facilitation process.  Does President Arroyo agree to enhance IMT’s role with a stronger mandate for investigations?  Through policy of making its findings public, EU has provided a changing context.       

As it is, in MILF leadership thinking, the phases of Government-MILF negotiation process from its initiation to conclusion were not the product of an arbitral imposition.  I’m too close to the processes to default the hardcore position couched behind the framework document.  There is no point in re-negotiating the MOA-AD only to make it a subject of another action in law before the Supreme Court.  (You hang on: don’t aficionados of patriotic rhetoric recall this troubling recipe for something ‘capable of being repeated’?  You read on: Isn’t this a ‘controlling guideline’ from the Court)? 

We’ve never envisaged a sequel to un-bundle substantive components of ancestral domain framework document neatly defined in four strands. On balance, the MOA-AD is unprecedented formulation: ‘truce’ to bind a ‘territory under a pact’.  It conciliates between nationalist and the religious cast of MILF leadership with an appeal to reach out to non-Muslims.  What I would like to qualify is the inherent asymmetry of MOA-AD framework.  If it comes to your mind that MILF core membership is based on Muslims, understand that in its conduct towards non-Muslims, this movement deals with them not by religious dicta.  Doubters could be countered when I conflate the hudna or truce argument in my next commentary against the backdrop of the cessation of hostilities. 

It so happens that only commentators with ‘veiled ignorance’ of Islamic jurisprudence doubt the MOA-AD.  Come to think about this much-touted text: But for the KL brokers to formulate a deal is to fake not only the story line and narratives but also the documentation and notes to back them up.  How about Washington’s interlocutors? Not so here. Most of the proposals on MILF’s documents filed with the Malaysian Secretariat were invariably not in one-to-one correspondence with the GRP’s official positions?  Code words made it easier to work the political wing strategy of MILF to convince their constituencies that the initialed MOA-AD text could run down the military violence.

We’ve no reason to mark time.  Abdullah Camlian who was trained at the Cairo Military Academy argues: “There’s no mistaking the direction we’ve taken for the military wing.”  Veterans of the 1970s saw in that AFP attack on Bulliok complex on Eid-ul Adha (2/11/03) a day of amity-enmity nexus. They found common cause ‘to repossess the Islamic movement’ and advance the political agenda, but not concessive to put MILF arms beyond use.  The sequence of events make for a “clear message” that those who harbor a personal animus (most of it directed against integrationist Misuari wingers) accepted the reality of this fact.  Today they need no urging to support MILF’s analysis of the Moro problem with informed and coordinated policy of rapprochement with supporters of Bangsamoro rights, and the final status talks. 

Is there a story to this? By practical reality, MILF adopts a consensual, Islamist approach opposite to the originally nationalist MNLF advocacy and by now all-too-reformist ‘electoralism’ in ARMM. “Their negativity towards mainstream politics was reflected by MILF’s founder Salamat Hashim,” admits Maulana Alonto.  Just don’t mistake it for a hung up on dogma.  Abdulazis Mimbantas and Sammy Gambar who subscribe to this view remain convinced that while the armed struggle renders the Moro territory ‘ungovernable’, a political party’s role has yet no place to pull the levers.  Cadre officers and younger members of the MILF stand less for a political party than for political expression of the Bangsamoro identity/ juridical entity which the members of other parties or groups could support. (Datu Michael O. Mastura is a lawyer, historian, a former representative of Maguindanao to Congress and now a senior member of the MILF peace panel)