RIVERMAN’S VISTA: “Heaven and Earth is not that far apart”:

QUEZON CIY  (MindaNews/29 August) — In the news last week was what appeared to be the troubled state of the ongoing negotiations between the Government of the Philippines (GPH) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).  It was reported that the MILF peace panel recommended to its Central Committee to reject the peace proposal submitted by the Government of the Philippines (GPH). Because of these reports, many have commented that the peace process has broken down and that its breakdown is imminent. Far from it, as the government and the MILF have officially said. Indeed, they are not about to scuttle the negotiations. Knowing personally many of the protagonists, I suspect that behind the tension is a continuing deep and healthy respect for each other.

In fact, I think that the negotiations with the MILF are in a good state. Now, with the proposals of the MILF and the GPH seemingly far from each other, both peace panels have realized that they have a lot of work to do. The issues, as we lawyers like to say, have been joined. The next step is to work on them – argue debate, discuss, elaborate, brainstorm, innovate – and come closer to each other, As a veteran negotiator and mediator, my unsolicited advice to both panels is not to use one draft as the negotiating text. In fact, in my view, what had doomed previous agreements was the unilateral acceptance of one panel of the other’s draft as a basis for discussion. The best approach is to merge both drafts and to discuss every point -every concession offered, every demand articulated – exhaustively. It is in those discussions that new ideas will emerge and what seem to be unsolvable problems can be resolved – sometimes dissolved because new solutions are found that make the problems irrelevant and go away.

Although I am not privy to the specific texts the panels have submitted to each other, I have studied their public statements, including the summaries of their respective proposals. Based on my analysis, as someone who has studied the Mindanao conflict since 1974 (I have always considered the outbreak of the MNLF conflict that year as the beginning of my political conscientization; later in 1976-77, when I was a freshman, I did my first Ateneo de Manila term paper under the tutelage of the great English teacher Professor Soledad Reyes on the Mindanao independence movements) and as a professor of constitutional law, I actually do not think that the GPH and the MILF are very far apart from each other. There are serious differences in the language, yes, with which the two couched their proposals but substantively I think the differences can be worked out. Each panel should however be ready to give up – not their core interests, what they really want, as that would be surrender – but they should stop attaching these interests to specific words.

I came to this conclusion – that the GPH and the MILF positions are closer to each other than they think after both panels released copies of the summaries of their respective proposals each with 11 points. While couched in general terms, these 11 point summaries give us some idea on why both panels are taking their respective negotiating postures.

Under point no. 1 for example, the MILF Panel calls for a formula of peace through the exhaustion of all democratic remedies to solve a home-grown sovereignty-based conflict; whereas the GPH Panel is set on a formula to achieve a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in our country. It presents a practical and bold approach to create the conditions for meaningful and effective governance through a sustainable partnership.

he operative term in the MILF proposal is “the exhaustion of all democratic remedies” which underlies executive and legislative actions; and indirectly, the amendment of the Constitution. While executive initiatives are acceptable to the GPH, it is averse to considering a congressional action as an immediate option by settling with a formula that “presents a practical and bold approach to create the conditions for meaningful and effective governance.”

Under point no. 4, the MILF articulates its desire for a modest share and taste of the remaining 7-9 percent of the lands, wealth and resources of what used to be 98 percent at the turn of the last century. Again, the GPH, perhaps mindful of the legal and constitutional limitations of the executive, avoids being caught in a legal trap by counter-offering with a formula that “works with what is available and doable within the next few years.” Understandably, the GPH does not want to start off with contentious and divisive issues that may not be realizable yet but, for practical considerations, only wants to put on the table workable proposals. This pragmatic approach is most likely guided by the thought that the President Aquino will be hard put entering into an agreement that will require Constitutional Change.

After this prelude, the MILF Panel finally foists under point no. 6 the concept of an “asymmetrical state-substate relationships, wherein powers of the central government and state government are clearly stated, aside from those powers they jointly exercise.” In its corresponding point, GPH countered that the formula must “show(s) government’s awareness of the extent of the legal and political powers of the President.  However, it is also a political document that is intended to cause public discussion that can support future debates.” In simple terms, the MILF wants a sub-state, but the GPH begs that the proposal requires a constitutional amendment or revisions which cannot be guaranteed by the president because of constitutional limitations.

As can be gleaned from this exchange, we can see that the two panels are engaged in some sort of a tug-of-war; each one trying to tug the other with one negotiating point after another hoping that his adversary yields or concedes. Based on the proposed formula it has submitted as contained in the 11 point proposed draft, the MILF Panel wants to put in the agenda the amendment or revision of the Constitution that will accommodate its own concept of governance for Muslim Mindanao. The GPH, on the other hand, refuses to budge from this importuning by insisting that it is only willing to put in the negotiating table proposals that are doable or workable during the present administration. There seems to be a fundamental difference in the approaches taken by both sides. The tack being taken by the MILF Panel is to amend first the Constitution in line with its proposed sub-state before socio-economic development measures can be undertaken.  For the GPH, it’s the other way around, i.e. socio-economic initiatives first then followed by a change in political structure, which may not be realizable during the present administration as it requires constitutional revision. MILF is running clockwise, while the GPH is moving counter-clockwise.  The result is an impasse.

Does this impasse augur the failure of the negotiations?  Not necessarily.

The disparity in the approaches notwithstanding, both parties do not much differ in the substantive aspects.

Both agree on the imperatives of socio-economic development and political reforms. It is on the order of priority that they differ on. Also, since the start of the peace talks 14 years ago, there has been a dramatic shift in the position taken by the MILF when it finally dropped its demand for secession in favor of one that recognizes the sovereignty of the Philippine government and territorial integrity of the country. This is a plus factor because they do not contend with an issue which is basically non-negotiable.

How about the proposed sub-state, is it an alien political concept not recognized under international law? Will this proposal finally forestall the talks? As a theoretical concept, sub-state may be unrecognizable, but in practical terms it is akin to a wide range of existing or recognized political subdivisions. In its mildest form, a substate is like a barangay, municipality, city and province which enjoy autonomy from the central government while the latter retaining its power of general supervision. Also the ARMM which has been granted under the law a large measure of autonomy, loosely speaking is a sub-state. Or at the extreme end, it can assume the form and functions of a federal state like the federations of U.S., Canada, India etc. In other words, a sub-state may be seen as a generic term for political entities which exercise varying degrees of autonomy. This concept is susceptible to varying interpretations that the parties can jointly explore and agree on whether it takes the form that is within the framework of the present Constitution or one that requires constitutional change taking into account a more realistic time frame.

Negotiations of this sort are always difficult. There will always be differences, but only few are really intractable and even those have solutions. In the global climate change negotiations which I have had a privilege to play a central role as chair of a difficult but ultimately successful set of negotiations called REDD+ on the role of forests in mitigating climate change, I have brokered agreement after only a year of negotiations even when at the beginning Parties were “Heaven and Earth” apart from each other.


The key is to maintain a high level of trust in the sincerity of both parties and continuously search for commonalities with patience and determination, make every effort to narrow down the gap until a final breakthrough is achieved. In this regard, the support of the peace constituency for the process is imperative. I urge all of those who believe in peace not to take sides at this stage of the negotiations. Instead, let’s encourage the GPH and the MILF panels to continue the good work they are doing and to keep on talking until solutions are found. Let us also find ways to be constructive, including giving suggestions and proposals that may bridge the gap while not insisting on our own views as we certainly do not know better.


Is  the difference between the GPH and MILF positions like that between “Heaven and Earth” or is this a bridgeable gap? I think that the positions are reconcilable. In any case, aren’t heaven and earth in fact bridgeable through acts of good will, sincere intention, unyielding compassion, and a resolute commitment to peace?

(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Dean Tony La Viña is a human rights and environmental lawyer from  Cagayan de Oro City. He was a member of the government peace panel negotiating with the MILF from January to June 2010. He is currently the Dean of the Ateneo School of Government. Dean Tony can be reached at [email protected] or followed in Facebook: [email protected]  and Twitter: tonylavs)