PEACETALK: Did President Aquino hint on "self-determination" as his peace framework in Mindanao? By Atty. Camilo “Bong” Montesa

MANILA (MindaNews/30 June) — President Noynoy Aquino, in his inaugural speech, hinted at the “right to self-determination” as his peace framework in Mindanao. Consider his words:

“My government will be sincere in dealing with all the peoples of Mindanao. We are committed to a peaceful and just settlement of conflicts, inclusive of the interests of all – may they be Lumads, Bangsamoro or Christian.

We shall defeat the enemy by wielding the tools of justice, social reform, and equitable governance leading to a better life. Sa tamang pamamahala gaganda ang buhay ng lahat, at sa buhay na maganda, sino pa ang gugustuhing bumalik sa panahon ng pang-aapi?”

Some observations.

1. It seems to me that President Aquino is hinting on the “right to self-determination” as his peace framework for Mindanao. President Aquino’s use of the phrase “peoples of Mindanao” is intriguing. While there is no recognized legal definition of “peoples” in international law, the word “peoples” has been used to refer to the “entire population of the occupied territorial unit, no matter their other differences” or to those “peoples” who share the same “ethnicity, language, history, etc.” or those defined by “ties of mutual affection or sentiment,” i.e. “loyalty,” or by mutual obligations among peoples. “People” has also been used to refer to a group of individuals who “unanimously choose a separate state” or “unanimous in their desire for self-determination”. Definitely, the Bangsamoro is a people in every sense of the word.

By using such phrase, President Aquino not only makes public the fact that he subscribes to the view that Mindanao is composed of many “peoples” and is a context of diversities – of faith, of ethnicity, etc. and that the future solutions need to take into account this reality of many “peoples” in Mindanao. Furthermore, if the President recognizes the many peoples of Mindanao, then he must recognize the right of self determination of peoples. Under the United Nations Charter: “All peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.” Is the grant of self-determination to the Bangsamoro people looming in the horizon? Interesting.

2. In this address, President Aquino also categorically and unequivocally commits himself and his government to the peace process as the mode of settling the long-standing conflict. This is good. It provides breathing space and calms the hearts of the peoples of Mindanao that war is not Aquino’s policy. It is a rejection of a purely militaristic, all-out war approach.

An implication of such commitment that President Aquino must now seriously consider is this: a commitment to the peace process requires an openness to compromise, to the possibility of modifying or changing one’s position in order to find a just and durable settlement. This is because to say that one is committed to a peaceful settlement of conflict and yet has no plans of revising or modifying one’s initial position is a farce. Stated in the concrete, since the Philippine Government’s position has always been to insist on the framework of the present Constitution, national sovereignty and territorial integrity as the overarching “non-negotiables” for peace talks with the MILF, President Aquino, in order to be true to his words of commitment to the peaceful and just settlement of conflicts, should be ready to explore new modalities and new ways of looking at the Mindanao problem and its solutions. There cannot be an insistence of the old, rehashed and perennial formulas, like the enhanced autonomy, expanded ARMM, etc.

3. A cause for concern, however, is President Aquino’s use of the standard counterinsurgency lingo – “defeating the enemy”. It is a cause for concern because the “defeating the enemy” frame is a specific ideological perspective and limits the perceived solutions to the conflict. The “defeating the enemy” frame is an enemy-centric frame and sees the problem as “individualist” and/or “personalistic” rather than involving communities and/or requiring serious social structural reforms. The problem in Mindanao is not just a problem of a few misguided armed goons or victims of injustice who decided to band together and fight the Government. The problem in Mindanao is societal, structural and sovereignty-based problem. It requires, beyond the catering to individual grievances or neutralizing armed combatants, a change in fundamental rules between the Philippine State and the Bangsamoro people.

But on the whole, as I stated in my Facebook status, it is a good start. It remains to be seen what President Aquino will do once he faces the real challenges and problems of the conflict in Mindanao. (MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. PeaceTalk is open to anyone who wants to share his/her views on peace in Mindanao. Atty. Camilo “Bong” Montesa recently resigned as Assistant Secretary at the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process)