LETTER FROM MINDANAO: Peace from a cab window in Kuala Lumpur

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/01 May) —  A gentle rain accompanied my 40-minute taxi ride  from the hotel in downtown Kuala Lumpur to the international airport early Friday, the morning after the government and Moro Islamic Liberation Front peace panels signed a joint statement agreeing, among others, to meet again two months later with government presenting its peace settlement counterproposal.

There is something about watching rain fall gently on a vast landscape that is the expressway – lanes the color of gray, trees lined up on one side of the road, a forest on the other.  It can make one melancholic (how many times have I passed this road in the last ten years, from a coverage of yet another round of peace talks?) and optimistic (“I believe for every drop of rain that falls, a flower grows……”)

The last time I was on this road was the night of the aborted signing of the MOA-AD (Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain) on August 5, 2008. I had rushed to the airport from an extended bye-bye-see-you talk with government peace negotiators and civil society representatives pondering worst-case scenarios. Earlier that morning, I talked with MILF panel members still reeling from disbelief that their “one moment in time” vanished with the Supreme Court’s issuance of a Temporary Restraining Order the afternoon before.

The nearly midnight taxi ride to the airport was quick. I remember the darkness (or did it match my is-there-light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel mood?) It was definitely not a starry, starry night.

Watching the fall of gentle rain from a cab window can be really uplifting, especially if you’ve been holed up for two days in a windowless foyer waiting for peace negotiators to come out of a windowless function room, all of them – panel members, facilitator, secretariat, technical committee members, the International Contact Group — wearing formal business suits in various shades of black and gray – except Professor Miriam Coronel-Ferrer, the lone woman panel member, who wore cream on the second day, and Datu Antonio Kinoc, alternate panel member of the MILF, who wore a faded red B’laan costume –at least the upper part, in lieu of the coat (he still wore a tie).

That peace negotiations are held behind closed doors, I can very well understand. But why must peace be negotiated in windowless rooms (why can’t they let the sunshine in and talk peace?) and dark suits (if formal wear is a requirement, does it have to be dark business suits which are neither Filipino nor Bangsamoro?)

Would they remember the displaced-by-several-wars Bapa and Babu in Datu Piang, Maguindanao and their children and the other war victims, as they talk peace across the negotiating table in artificially lighted boxes called “function” rooms in a hotel in faraway Malaysia?

Can negotiators “function” properly, can they think of creative solutions behind closed doors, windowless rooms?

Imagine this: 21 “exploratory talks” since the resumption of talks after the Buliok war in 2003 (the second “formal exploratory talks” under the Aquino administration).  Include the “informal exploratory talks” in January this year and that’s 22. Add the March 2001 exploratory talks that led to the signing of the first agreement under the Arroyo administration and the three formal talks before Arroyo’s 2003 war, that’s 26. Don’t forget to add the back channel meetings. And the negotiations from 1997 to 2000.

And if we are to add the negotiations from 1974 to 1976 and 1992 to 1996 with the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), the review of the implementation from the first round in November 2007….

For now let’s focus on the GPH-MILF talks: 1997 to 2011. Fourteen years, 10 years of that facilitated by Malaysia and held in Malaysia.  Ten years. That student in the conflict-affected areas entering Grade One in June 2001, would have graduated from high school in April 2011 if uninterrupted by little and big wars. That is what ten years means.  If we are to reckon from 1997,  that Grade One student in June 1997, would have graduated from college in April 2011, again, if uninterrupted by wars.

How many sets of peace panels from the government and MNLF, and the government and MILF have come and gone, each one hopeful they would find the solution?

How many bakwits have I met and talked with in the discomfort of their evacuation centers or these newly-built relocation houses whose benefactors – whether government or NGO or INGO, humanitarian  or pretending to be – did not seem to bother to ask the war victims what kind of  “core housing” they really want (maybe they should try staying the entire day and the entire night in their donated houses and see if they can survive the heat of the ceiling-less iron GI sheet roofings at daytime).  How many “core houses” along the highways are left there standing, and yes, rotting, waiting for occupants because it doesn’t really follow that houses made of concrete and iron sheets are more fit for human habitation than the airy bahay kubo made of bamboo, nipa and sawali in areas where they can plant in their own small backyard?

How many more negotiations?  Two months to prepare for the June 27 and 28 round which by then, would be two days short of a full year of  the Aquino administration.  By then there will have been only 60 months left of the 72-month Aquino administration which promises not to pass this problem on to the next administration and which hopes to come up with a peace settlement within one year so implementation can already begin.

They have two months to consult various sectors, to reach out to the people who are and will be affected,  two months to negotiate within their respective constituencies – the government panel so that it is not only just the Office of the President but also the other branches of government, that are on the same page;  the MILF panel so that it is not only just the MILF but also the other  sectors representing the Bangsamoro,  that are also on the same page.

The road to forging a peace agreement will not be as smooth as an early morning ride on the expressway of Kuala Lumpur.  It will still be as bumpy as the ride in the interiors of the conflict-affected areas in the Bangsamoro areas.

But the two sides across the negotiating table appear to have learned lessons from the past, lessons from the failure of the 1976 and 1996 peace pacts, lessons from the failure of the 2008 MOA-AD.  (Carolyn O. Arguillas can be reached at [email protected])

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