ADVOCACY MINDANOW: Back to the table, everyone

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/29 August) — ‘NO SHOW’ –Last week, when the MILF decided to suddenly leave the negotiating table,  hastily packed its bags to head  back for home and  did not show up on the last day of the scheduled peace negotiations after getting the government (GPH) draft, I was not surprised at all.  In fact, I was expecting it.

I have not seen nor read the GPH draft but I saw the curt reply of MILF chair Mohagher Iqbal when he was asked by media how far apart their draft was from that submitted by his counterpart, GPH chair Marvic Leonen. His answer: “Heaven and earth!” It may be a bit exaggerated but it simply shows how wide apart the two negotiating positions initially appear — at least in the eyes of one of the parties involved.

I also followed the reactions coming from all sectors, be they from the sympathizers of the MILF, the government or just plain observers and commentators, including the so-called “swivel chair” analysts who sit in their air-conditioned rooms, far and detached from the ground realities but who oftentimes presumptuously pretend to be better and more knowledgeable than the actual players themselves. (Bless them!) But this cacophony of voices is understandable. And again should be expected.

HONORABLE WAY — For the MILF to reject outright the government draft for not adopting the “sub-state” formula, to me, is no surprise. In fact, it was the most honorable thing for them to do. Having publicly proclaimed to the whole world that its bottom-line demand to address the Bangsamoro aspiration was for the setting up of a sub-state arrangement, the MILF had no other choice but to uphold its own integrity and self-respect when it immediately found that there was NOTHING in the GPH draft that DIRECTLY addressed it. It had also to mollify its forces, followers and supporters who had high expectations, whetted by that recent Tokyo presidential audience no less. For the MILF to do less is to lose face before its own people. To do less is to run roughshod over MILF’s goodwill and integrity before the eyes of the Bangsamoro. And before the eyes of the world. To do less is to allow the likes of trouble-maker renegade MILF commander Umra Kato to happily rub it in and mock MILF’s Kagi Murad with a derisive: “I told you so!”

SIMILAR EPISODE — I recall one similar incident in Malaysia years back when I was chief negotiator, although that was less significant than this one now. Our panel technical committee was not happy with the way and the tenor MILF panel member and my good friend Mike Mastura harangued all of us during the opening salvo on the ancestral domain discussions that we all decided, upon the recommendation of GRP committee head Ms Zen Brosas that we “boycott” the next session to just show our displeasure. The Malaysian facilitator at that time was Tengku Gaafar who is now back by the way as current facilitator when Datu Othman was replaced recently. When he inquired on the whereabouts of our “no show” team in the scheduled afternoon session, I merely told him in a light and nonchalant manner that Zen brought them out “to do shopping”. Tengku understood why. We thought that was our honorable way of reacting or responding to keep our integrity intact. Of course, there are other examples that I will disclose at some other time.

CONSTITUENCIES — .It was also perfectly understandable for the GPH panel last week to immediately publicly profess at the outset that it has constitutional parameters to reckon with, that the residual powers of the executive with whom the MILF is negotiating are not absolute and plenary but have legal limitations and boundaries, mindful of the Supreme Court MOA-AD ruling; that there are basic principles that are sacrosanct and non-negotiable. It was prudent in not addressing directly the “sub-state” demand of the MILF in its own GPH draft.

The reality is that both panels have their own respective constituencies to take care of, engage with or even massage. In fact, I previously complained that in my previous work, at times it was easier to negotiate and get a deal with those on the other side of the table (MILF) than get those who were on your same side of the table (cabinet, etc) to concur and agree with you. I guess this is true now for both sides when dealing with their respective stakeholders.

To borrow the allegorical words of MILF chair Iqbal, perhaps the MILF wanted “heaven” but the GPH can only give “earth”. Or vice versa.

“OPEN CARDS” — This seemingly wide gap between the two positions at this stage of the negotiations is clear and apparent for everyone to see. The conduct of today’s negotiations is such that, as repeatedly pointed out, everything has to be made public. It’s like playing poker or any card game where “all cards are flipped open on the table”. There are no more surprises. This is a new track in peace negotiations. But I guess, with what happened in the past, and mindful of the fate of the failed MOA AD and its violent aftermath with some lessons learned, both sides had no other choice but to pursue this unusual track of “negotiating publicly”.

If you ask me, having been there as chief negotiator once, this is more difficult than the one we were used to. For one, every Tom, Dick and Harry will now try and dip his finger in an already complicated and difficult process. Then, the negotiator cannot keep his cards close to his chest for some higher strategic or tactical consideration. Everything is out in the public domain. There is not much leeway for the negotiators to work on. It’s a bit close to a “take it or leave it” proposition. It may fast-track the resolution, well and good. But it may also result in an early impasse or breakdown. Or worst, an early collapse of the talks.

SUSTAINABILITY — My old fashioned belief was that peace negotiation is a tedious process in itself that allows sufficient time, irrespective of how long a time it will take, to build confidence, heal wounds, redress grievances and build or strengthen relationships and institutions and slowly evolve a mutually acceptable sharing of paradigms and arrangements bringing about the eventual consolidation of all stakeholders, if not all, then the critical mass. Now, it seems we do not have the luxury of time. Everyone seems to be impatient and cannot wait any longer. We all know that quick results or “quickies” necessarily bring about issues of sustainability and endurance. The process in itself has shifted to a new paradigm. Then there is the temptation and tendency of trivializing or simplistically viewing the long-unresolved issues that had impelled people to take  up arms that cost countless lives and sufferings not only of those directly involved in the conflict but by the whole body politic. Alas, this is where we are today.

HARD GRIND BEGINS — At this stage now, positions are declared and battle lines are clearly drawn.  Both drafts are now in. The “issues are joined”, as we lawyers usually say. The hard grind begins.

I have not read both drafts. But I have been briefed of MILF’s position. I also read GPH’s recently released summary briefer titled “Eleven Characteristics of the Government Proposal”.

My take is that while initially, it’s like “heaven and earth” apart, there is opportunity now for both sides to bridge that gap. If you read closely the GPH summary briefer, my personal assessment is that it was adroitly crafted as a watershed document to contain a set of principles and visions that are mostly common to both sides. Putting flesh to them is crucial. It also provides a process that may lead, if properly and delicately handled, to a mutually acceptable settlement.  (Take note that there is nothing there to indicate that it rejects or excludes anything, NOT EVEN A SUB-STATE).

NO OTHER CHOICE — At the end of the day, the final configuration of a peace settlement will really depend on the evolution of the negotiations and the enabling environment that the critical mass of the constituencies will be comfortable with and accept. And conformable with mutually shared principles on both sides. Nothing less.

Of course, along the way, there will be critics, so-called third party plotters, do-gooders, doomsayers, non-conformists, oppositionists, grandstanders, doubters, hecklers, trouble makers, deal breakers, peace blockers, etcetera. They are considered “given” and are part of the scenery. Who knows, they may also help distil ideas. There are also those who serve as they stand and wait. But we all have no choice but to find some final settlement. We should not all rest until and unless the Bangsamoro aspiration is adequately addressed. The dire alternative is the pestering un-peace, not only in the land,  but most especially in the hearts of those who yearn for and who understand the imperatives for peace.

So, back to the negotiating table, everyone! There’s a lot of work to do ahead! And the task is not that easy! In the meantime, let’s all back off and give enough room to the negotiators of both sides to untangle this maze.([email protected])