COMMENTARY: The search for peace must not be hostaged by formalities and protocols

Surprised but not scared.

That was what I felt when news of President Benigno S. Aquino’s meeting with Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in Tokyo, Japan broke out in the media.

There are varying reactions to the President’s “secret” meeting with Ibrahim Murad, the MILF Chairman, in a hotel near the Narita Airport in Japan.

Some said President Aquino did the unthinkable by talking to a rebel leader who is not his equal. An unidentified diplomat was quoted in the media as saying that the President’s act was tantamount to treason.

Others applauded the President for going out of his way and ignoring diplomatic protocols and formalities to hold a frank one-on-one conversation with the leader of a rebel group in a manifestation of a sincere desire to end the hostilities in the Southern Philippines.

Both observations have basis and are valid.

The President indeed may have violated diplomatic protocols by talking directly to a rebel leader who has not yet signed a peace deal with the Philippine government. But yes, the frank eyeball-to-eyeball meeting shows that President Aquino is committed to bring the conflict in the South, which has stunted the growth of the region and caused untold miseries to the people, to a peaceful end.

Christian leaders in Mindanao, who in all modesty look up to me as their champion in defending the Christian population’s position in the negotiations, have frantically texted me asking if President Aquino “has betrayed us?”.

My response was “Relax. Let’s give him an elbow room in handling this problem.”

In my view, the President’s move may indeed be a reflection of political naivete` and  show how simplistic his perception of the peace negotiations is.

But scared? Hardly.

I am comfortable with this President knowing where he comes from prior to his ascendancy to the highest position in the land and certain of his noble intentions for the Filipino people.

People must be reminded that then Senator Benigno S. Aquino III was one of the key leaders of the Liberal Party when I sued the administration of President Arroyo before the Supreme Court to question the MOA-AD.

There are still pictures in the internet showing him seated beside former Senator Mar Roxas, Senator Franklin Drilon and myself as we waged the campaign against the “secretive” signing of the document which would have established a semi-independent Islamic State embracing almost half of the Island of Mindanao.

This is a President whose attitude is that of a Big Brother who would like to bring conflicting parties to an honest tete-a-tete, much like squabbling kids who are brought together and asked: “Hey, what’s your problem?”

This was what was lacking in the previous peace negotiations effort. It was just too formal and bound by diplomatic protocols and formalities that it hardly moved forward.

One of the basic issues that I raised with the previous peace panels, even during the time of Secretary Jesus Dureza, was the understanding  that perceived MILF territories should not be touched for development by local government units, including the one I headed, until such time a formal peace agreement was signed.

This was a view shared and embraced even by foreign donor organizations and countries and this has contributed to the worsening of the poverty in the rebel influenced or controlled areas.

Unlike the position of President Aquino now which is embracing and informal, previous peace negotiations were conducted using the Concept of the War of Nations where intermediaries were needed to facilitate with the objective of signing a piece of paper to formally end the conflict.

In the case of the MILF issue, the Malaysian Government was brought in which in turn sent its military officers to Mindanao to act as facilitators and peace monitors.

If there is any display of naivete, this was the best example.

Whoever agreed to the idea of bringing in Malaysia as facilitator may have overlooked the fact that we will have a “technical” conflict with that country over Sabah. Arranging a peace deal between the Philippine government the MILF would give Malaysia great leverage in solving the Sabah problem.

And how could the Philippines allow Malaysian military officers, mostly intelligence agents, access to all critical military installations in the Southern Philippines? It is like allowing your enemy to count how many knives you have in the kitchen.

Observers must keenly understand the implications of the President’s latest move.

First, it was held in Japan, not Malaysia. There is an underlying message that could be the reflection of the views of the mainstream Mindanaoans who question Malaysia’s motives in facilitating the talks.

Second, the President’s decision to talk to Murad himself could be simply interpreted as a manifestation of his very informal attitude in solving problems, even such a gigantic dilemma like the Mindanao conflict.

It is just like telling the MILF chairman: “Brod, halika ka. Mag-usap nga tayo ng masinsinan. Ano ba talaga ang gusto nyo?’ (Brod, come here. Let’s talk sincerely. What is it really that you want?)

And this is the correct attitude in addressing the Mindanao Problem. This is the position and I and many others have espoused for so long. Those involved in the conflict must sit down as Filipinos and come up with a solution to a local problem.

For so long, negotiators have been preoccupied with the political solutions and diplomatic protocols forgetting that the reason why there is rebellion is the South is because the people are poor and have been neglected for so long.

The United States, United Kingdom, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and of course, Japan, have been involved in solving a problem rooted in poverty and deprivation and fanned by international extremist movements which called for the establishment of independent Islamic countries.

The international developments in the campaign against Islamic extremism are actually helping the Aquino administration in simplifying the approach to solving the Mindanao Problem.

With the death of Osama bin Laden, the acknowledged leader of Islamic Extremist movement in the world, the Arab Spring, and the retreat of most extremist groups in the face of the relentless American campaign, the dream of the Jemaah Islamiya and other groups to establish a Pan-Islamic nation that would include Southern Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Mindanao has effectively been shot down.

The move of the MILF to declare that they are dropping their secessionist agenda is really just a pragmatic move on the part of the rebel group rather than a concession to the Aquino administration.

The Aquino administration now must move forward fast in the midst of these international developments taking into mind the two important positions embraced by the majority of the Mindanaoans:


  1. No Islamic sub-state and no expansion of the autonomous area. There is no point expanding a region which is the poorest in the country and where governance is marked by massive corruption and creating a sub-state on the basis of religion could raise another Constitutional question.
  2. Socio-economic solutions must be emphasized over political arrangements and accommodations. No amount of peace agreements could assure that there will be an end to the conflict in Mindanao if the Muslims continue to wallow in poverty and deprivation, if they are not able to send their children to school and if they are not given the services due them as citizens of this Republic.

Let us throw to the wastebasket of Philippine history all of those formalities and diplomatic protocols which have encumbered the search for peace in the Southern Philippines.

There are many ways and methods in solving a conflict and we should give President Aquino the flexibility to do things he believes should be undertaken to achieve the objective.

Let us all be comfortable with the thought that this President, however simplistic his view of governance is, possesses no insatiable desire for money, or craves for more years in power.

(Note from the writer: The writer was Governor of North Cotabato from 1998 to 2007, considered as the bloodiest era of government’s campaign against the secessionist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). In 1999 to 2001, he was locked in a fierce conflict with the rebel group which tried to overrun his province. He has survived several assassination attempts and 2008 discovered a secret deal between the administration of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and the MILF to establish an expanded semi-independent Islamic State in the Southern Philippines. He sought the help of the Philippine Supreme Court and questioned the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD) which would have created the Bangsamoro Juridical Entity. In October of 2008, the Supreme Court declared the MOA AD unconstitutional. The MILF listed him as its Most Hated Filipino Politician and in the last elections, when he sought to regain the governorship, he received Zero votes in areas controlled or influenced by the rebel group. He now writes a political and sports column for The Manila Times newspaper and is actively involved in Philippine professional boxing and farming.)