ADVOCACY MINDANOW: If I were the MILF

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/01 November) — Last week, I wrote an item titled “IF I WERE THE PRESIDENT” where I mentioned what I would have done in the recent Basilan incident if I were the President (thank goodness I’m not).  Of course, I drew lessons while serving former Presidents Ramos and Arroyo when they were faced with similar situations.

This week, I will continue the sequel, by sharing a few more thoughts.

P5-M TO MILF –  If I were the government and the MILF, I would  resolve quickly the already embarrassing issue about that now-famous P5-millioncheck that was handed over to MILF Chair Kagi Murad by Chief Negotiator Marvic Leonen at the outset of the  resumption of peace negotiations.  We were told that it was intended to fund the Bangsamoro Leadership and Management Institute (BLMI), an institution that came out in the course of previous peace negotiations during our time.

IMPROPER –I recall reading initial reports after that Kuala Lumpur meeting held last August. Government Chair Leonen, in his opening statements, immediately made reference to the turnover of the check of P5 million.  I immediately commented in my column article that week entitled “UNSOLICITED ADVICE: PLEASE LANG” (dated September 12) pointing out that the giving of that amount was not proper.   It projected a “buy out perception” at the expense of the peace process. Giving money across the table at the very outset of peace talks was lacking in sensitivity, I then wrote. I even wondered how the MILF must have experienced some amount of “discomfort” when the handover took place. I am sure they were not expecting a check at that momentous moment of resumption.  I commented about it long before the Basilan ambush because at that first instance, I already predicted then that the P5million would become an awkward issue sooner or later and unduly becloud the peace process. Sure enough, barely two months later, now, the issue is hogging the headlines.

KNEE-JERK –The situation had turned for the worse lately with knee-jerk calls now from Malacanang that the MILF must account for those funds in accordance with government regulations. How’s that again? Excuse me, but are we telling the MILF that they comply with government fund procedures like being subjected to Commission on Audit rules, etc?  C’mon guys, you must be joking. Being a rebel group, the MILF has consistently taken a stand that to be bound by Philippine legal and constitutional processes, while the talks are still on-going, amounts to capitulation.  To impose on the MILF those internal rules on fund use and for the MILF to agree to this is inconsistent with their avowed position. Unless of course MILF is willing to soften up on this. I dunno yet.

Knowing how things are magnified and spun, I am sure that there will be continuous undue speculations, attacks, criticisms and investigations etc.   In the end, the BLMI suffers. It will be inflicted with a wound that will keep pestering everyone’s sensitivities.    At the end of the day, even the integrity of the peace talks is adversely affected.

“ON THE JOB TRAINING”–  I served as chief negotiator as GRP panel chair from 2001 up to 2003 when I voluntarily resigned and also later as President Arroyo’s peace adviser for a while from 2006 until 2008. I took over from OPAPP Secretary Ging Deles, now a returnee, when she resigned with the “Hyatt 10” in 2006.  Please allow me to give some bits of information from my recollections… before Alzheimer’s sets in. (hahaha!)

I distinctly recall that it was the MILF in the course of the peace negotiations that first suggested that before becoming recipients of huge development funds from the donor countries and agencies, in preparation for a possible peace settlement, they wished that they be first trained and capacitated and that the small initial projects be just “test runs” for them to practice how to do it in the meantime that negotiations were still on-going. It was an “on the job” training of sorts. They pointed to the difficulties and constraints experienced by their brothers in the MNLF when a peace agreement was signed in 1996 and the MNLF was caught almost flatfooted. The MNLF members were trained as jungle fighters and warriors and when peace came, the combatants and even their commanders were not prepared to take on development and management roles. The MILF learned these lessons and wanted to do better.

We were all heartened by MILF’s rare and laudable proposition. We all grabbed the opportunity. And so did the donor countries. The World Bank first initiated, with the peace office OPAPP, a project that would pre-test development and livelihood projects as a sort of training course for the MILF with its own NGO called Bangsamoro Development Agency or BDA for short. The World Bank and the government together with the other donor countries and agencies then launched the Mindanao Trust Fund (MTF) as an initial step. Here, with some initial funds and limited targets, certain modest projects were implemented in selected areas in Mindanao as a precursor of what could be a big, up-scaled development fund if an agreement is finally signed. MILF’s BDA was the “implementing agency-trainee” of sorts.

FUTURE LEADERS –Then, as a consequence of these preparatory stages, the idea came out: what about an institute that would train the MILF and the Bangsamoro for future leadership roles in the future. Thus BLMI was born. It was akin to the concept of the Development Academy of the Philippines (which by the way helped in formulating concepts, etc)  but this was more specific and culturally-tuned for the Bangsamoro with Cotabato as its host venue. Countries and agencies like Japan, Asia Foundation, AusAid, USAID, EU and the rest of the participating donors were upbeat about this new paradigm: a rebel group that insisted that their people be trained first to ensure proper and inclusive implementation of post-settlement development plans and programs.

To highlight another unique development in the peace talks, EVEN BEFORE a final peace agreement is signed and finalized, a partnership between the government and the MILF was forged to do projects in conflict affected areas. Development programs, although in a limited scale, to improve the lives of the affected communities were already underway with the Philippine government and the MILF already working as partners, with the support of the donor community. Although the MILF made it clear that a political settlement must first be forged before full scale development is done. To me, it was not only a “confidence building measure” in the negotiations. It was something that would render both parties difficult to walk away from the negotiating table, especially when things go rough along the way. As it is today! Come to think of it, nowhere in the world can you find a rebel group already partnering with a government while still in the process of difficult negotiations without a final peace settlement yet in place.  As they say: ONLY IN DA PHILIPPINES!

From what I later gathered, the issue of funding the Bangsamoro institute then came to the fore. At first, the technical problem of the BLMI not being a registered entity under Philippine laws, like its parent, the Bangsamoro Development Agency (BDA) was an obstacle. Although I was no longer in the peace process office, I came to know lately that the registration requirement was reportedly done thus qualifying the BLMI to receive funds like any other nongovernmental organization or NGO for that matter.  But I also wondered how government funds could be used if the MILF stuck to its position that they would not submit to any government rules and regulations in the meantime when negotiations were still going on. Of course, this problem would go away with a final peace agreement signed and sealed. Unless of course the MILF, for this exceptional case, was willing to forego of their usual stand.  I am also trying hard to recall but during my watch,  I was not privy to  that P5-million alleged commitment by the Arroyo administration that Pres. Aquino is now claiming he is merely implementing and “delivering.”

CASUALTY –Now fast forward to the present. The recent Basilan incident triggered the issue that now puts BLMI in such a bad light and, if things turn for the worse, will become a victim of what many euphemistically call “collateral damage” of conflict.   All because of the “ill-advised” timing and gesture of handing over a P5-million check outright in the opening salvo of President Aquino’s initial parley in this very sensitive field of peace negotiations. Evidently, there was not much “CSW” done prior to the check turnover. CSW, by the way stands for “complete staff work”, an acronym popularized by FVR and GMA during their respective administrations. Of course initially, it was “good copy” for the government being publicly shown that it was willing and generous to support the peace initiatives. But giving money to the MILF irrespective of its good intentions, as a goodwill gesture, was a miscalculation. If President Aquino or his peace officials thought that giving outright the P5-million check to the MILF would make them “softer” to deal with, then they got it all wrong. But then, it’s water under the bridge now.

It is best that the MILF and the government quickly clarify these issues to the satisfaction of all. But if things continue to be acrimonious and a source of continuing  embarrassment for both sides, then if I were the MILF, I will seriously consider to voluntary “return” that P5 million to the government to help clear the air. I am sure there will be other generous sources, not from government funds, that will immediately take care of the slack.

Whichever way one looks at it, peace negotiations is not simple stuff. And obviously not easy. And I do not relish the situation Secretary Ging (my predecessor and successor at the same time) and Chair Leonen are now in. Thank goodness, I’m just now a kibitzer looking in – or just peeping in — from the outside. But I can’t help but put in my few cents worth from time to time after having been there myself before. And hopefully with everyone’s indulgence, attempting to give context to what’s going on today .  As I have repeatedly said, I have my own share of mistakes and milestones as well. The mistakes I wish to share so no one repeats them or milestones to learn from and to replicate.

Let me recall what my former “boss” President Ramos told me once when I was already complaining about the slow pace and the difficulties of the peace talks. He said: Peace negotiators must have 3 things. First, “patience”. Second, “more patience”. I became impatient and then asked: So what’s the third, Mr President.  He waved his hand, then with FVR signature thumbs up sign, said with a wink: “More, more patience”.

Indeed!

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