CRUCIBLE: Saving a rare moment of peace

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(Remarks read during the Philippine Political Science Association Conference, Xavier University – Ateneo de Cagayan, 12-14 April 2012).

In answer to the theme of the plenary season “GPH-MILF Peace Agreement: Now or Never?” there is no question that both the Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP or GPH) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) particularly the peace panels would like to sign a peace agreement.

When? Well, no one can tell, although the GPH can set deadline which we hope should not just become “deaddate” but must be met on time.

The fact that both peace panels have reached this number of nth exploratory talks hammering out possibilities of compromise shows their seriousness to forge a peace agreement. I could hardly imagine the weight of emotions where same faces meeting frequently under the gazing eyes of third party mediator and other international groups without producing any tangible results – results which should supposedly lead into a peace agreement. For sure, the cost of bringing both peace panels to Kuala Lumpur these past several years must not simply be seen by Malaysia as merely extension of goodwill; the best reciprocation is a peace agreement and its successful implementation.

This is not to mention the pressure on both panels to discuss and explain the peace process to their respective principals every now and then even as they have to continuously raise hopes over an increasingly disinterested, at times, jaded public particularly the Moros as they are frequently made to hope with series of peace processes whose promise has been hardly forthcoming.

On the contrary, now that peace talks have been dragged this far notwithstanding the number of unmet deadlines on plan to sign a peace agreement, could we fault the Philippine Political Science Association (PPSA) to raise question or doubt the possibility of peace agreement in the near future possibly even never at all during the PNoy Administration?  And even if a peace agreement is signed two years after the President’s assumption to office, what is its use if the administration would already be short of time to implement it? Experience of peace making in Mindanao consistently shows that signing a peace agreement is one thing, implementing it is quite another.

Moreover, even if the Executive agrees and signs a peace agreement with the MILF, said agreement must pass through the legislative mill that oftentimes reconfigures critical provisions of the peace agreement before it is transformed into an organic law. In this phase, this period alone would be arduous and long enough leaving further the administration with no time to shepherd, if any, such agreement or law.

Thus, if the PPSA’s question or, if you may, imperative for a peace agreement to be realized now or as soon as possible may indeed happen as frequently announced and scheduled by the Chair of the GPH Peace Panel, what kind of peace agreement would it be? How does such agreement connect with government approach of convergence of the three tracts (MILF, ARMM, MNLF)? Assuming a compromise between GPH’s 3 for 1 formula and MILF’s demand for Moro sub-state is reached either part or independent of peace convergence, does the GPH have the wherewithal to shepherd its implementation? And before even talking of implementation which is several steps ahead after the signing of a peace agreement, a more fundamental, strategic question is: After almost two years since the assumption of PNoy as president, does the present administration have a comprehensive vision of peace as a requirement in forging and implementing a peace agreement with the MILF? And finally, is Malacanang ready to make peace a national agenda where the three branches of government, LGUs, the public at large support it?

Early in this administration’s term, we articulated the need for PNoy to capture the moment by truly acting as a leader, inspiring the nation for greatness so that the Filipino people would envision higher goals, and by mobilizing the instrumentalities of the State in support of the vision of peace and by forging a comprehensive peace process (a tripartite participation of the GRP, MILF and MNLF).

Given PNoy’s fresh mandate and strong political capital as shown by his high rating and his strategic pedigree with both his father and mother who both played crucial role in addressing the Mindanao conflict since its inception with the Jabidah Massacre in 1968 and the institutionalization of regional autonomy in 1990, we were optimistic even if we appeared quixotic, that it is time for the peace process in Mindanao to take a radical turn from the mold of all-out war of President Estrada and the generally opportunistic, expedient use of Mindanao including the peace process by the Arroyo government.

It is because, we felt, if the PNoy administration would simply address the Mindanao conflict through traditional peace process and conflict management, that rare “moment” would be wasted and the momentum of peace would decelerate leaving the situation to deteriorate. Succeeding administrations after PNoy, we are afraid, would never be given the same position and opportunity to create great strides to make peace a reality in Mindanao. And thus if nothing substantial was done that early, we doubt if there would be another moment in the future that will be as exciting.

In our view, status quo after President Arroyo is not an option. The thrust must be to capture the moment for a rare happenstance of peace. Our optimism is emboldened even more with the fact that the peace lieutenants of each panel, with their maturity and qualifications were poised to architect a peace settlement and build the foundation for a new political order in Muslim Mindanao. These were, in brief, our expectation as Muslim observer of peace process these past two years.

You may laugh at me as being quixotic; but owing perhaps to our longing for peace that has been long overdue, we are forced to shift our gaze from the peace process as it has become too protracted and too tedious as it has taken a life of its own independent of Mindanao conflict to our anticipation for a rare moment (e.g., assumption to power of PNoy) that must be capable, if fully utilized, in ushering a new dawn in Mindanao. If PNoy won’t do it, is there any rare moment for Mindanao in the offing, say, a Pacquiao presidency perhaps? Can we even afford to laugh at it?

And we did not wait for too long with our hope dampened when Malacanang practically rebuked the chair of the GPH Peace Panel with his calibrated statement about the “universe of possibilities” of the peace process including the possible amendment of the Constitution revealing therefore the President’s bottom line. With such conservative display of affinity to a constitution characterized by what I call the grip of “nostalgia politics,” the road to greatness through peace in Mindanao has been nipped in the bud and our dream for a closure of the peace process remains open-ended.

In short, the business of peace process is here to stay to perpetuate instead of changing status quo even as our belief that status quo is not an option is already beginning to crumble. It must be noted, where there is semblance of status quo that persists now, it is not because the government is making headway in terms of advancing peace and development in Muslim Mindanao; it is generally due to involvement of foreign countries and international donor agencies whose interests are becoming very much entrenched in southern Philippines since these past years. In this regard, the peace process is becoming just one small part in the bigger canvass of Mindanao issues that is becoming more dominated and even directed by foreign interests. And if nothing substantial or critical is done in the peace front, less can be done to address the increasing foreign presence in Moro areas particularly the arbitrary exploitation of Moros’ natural and strategic resources right at the heart of their ancestral domain including their maritime areas.

Quite expectedly, what followed afterward in the peace process was becoming less exciting. Apart from several delays in the peace talks last year, the 3 for 1 solution of the GPH panel was less complimentary, if not too short of MILF’s sub-state proposal, the latter being the logical second step in moving a notch higher the status of regional autonomy close to federalism and below independence.

The MILF’s sub-state proposal, in our view, is supposedly the easy way out for Muslim Mindanao to be excised from the rigidities of unitary structure toward a regional federal set-up creating therefore a breathing space for both national and local governments in the area: given the increasing burden and difficulty by the national government to address its own problem, by allowing Muslim areas to become truly empowered structurally and politically, then the sub-state arrangement should have been received positively as it is nothing but a mere miniature or implementation, if you will, of series of proposals for federalism by well-meaning Filipino leaders who had seen the pitfalls of Philippine unitary system. And by Filipino leaders we meant not only living ones like Senator Nene Pimentel but prominent and historic of them particularly President Emilio Aguinaldo who in the early days of the Philippine Revolution invited the Sultan of Sulu to form a federal union between Filipino dominated area with Moro areas.

However as the GPH simply insists on enhanced autonomy, economic development, and cultural strengthening as the canvass of peace process, it shows how small and constricted the space the PNoy administration would like to work in with the MILF and for that matter other progressive forces in Muslim Mindanao; as if the political space of Muslim representation in national politics has not been consistently reduced these past several years where Muslims could only run for political office between a Barangay and the House of Representatives and any units in between and hardly or never at all in the Senate and other national positions in the Executive and the Judiciary. This is not to mention that the Final Peace Agreement of 1996 obliged the GPH to appoint Muslim representation in many national agencies, mandates which have not been fulfilled until these days.

While projecting convergence (three tracts of engagement – negotiation with the MILF, conversation with the MNLF, and reform in the ARMM) the GPH is politically and strategically short on how to connect together the three tracts to make it close to the comprehensive peace process that we initially hoped for. First, to connect the three tracts requires a political vision and viable strategies; despite how good the peace lieutenants are, unfortunately they can only receive directives; they do not create vision of peace. It is the President who charts such vision and gives marching orders to capture that rare moment of history.

Second, for convergence to happen it is necessary that the GPH offers them (i.e., MILF, MNLF) something which the two fronts could hardly refuse, a reason for them to reconfigure their present positions including their past revolutionary differences. As it is, the 3 for 1 formula is too little an offer not even suggestive or enough to excite the two fronts to reconsider their respective positions. Simply reforming the ARMM would not make the convergence happen too. In fact, it only makes the two fronts inward looking as they fortify their old positions.

Given the implications of GPH’s call for the two fronts to join forces, the seriousness of such unity call may actually border on calibrated strategy since, in the real sense, government could not allow the formation of a unified Moro front with their arms intact given the threat it may pose on national security. Thanks thus for the psychological, ethnic, and ideological barrier that divide the Moro movements the national security structure remains planted in Muslim Mindanao.

With the ARMM becoming Malacanang’s laboratory of self-imposed reform, the pressure for convergence may be viewed as less needed since ARMM reform, from GPH’s perspective, is already an accomplishment, albeit too small, even if the negotiation and conversation with the two fronts move at snail-paced or would not lead into a peace agreement, as long as their threats are kept at bay. In truth, GPH could not afford to abandon the peace process with the MILF or else it would loss a handle into which to project a semblance of peace engagement in Muslim Mindanao. As far as GPH is concerned, for Muslim Mindanao to tread into violence and terror is not an option as indirect pressure from the international community suggests the maintenance of relative peace and even if it means dragging the GRP-MILF peace process indefinitely while throwing crumbs to desperate people from time to time, giving thus much time for foreign interest and international players to strengthen their foothold and increase their influence in the area.

Unfortunately, while short-term presence of patronage politics and political dynasty could be addressed with the postponement of ARMM election, the ARMM reform undermined more fundamentally the edifice of autonomy and the democratic rights of people of the ARMM to elect their leaders. As problem of political patronage and dynasty is structural and national in scope, short-term reform of the ARMM may help temporarily reduce patronage system but would not change the situation over a long haul. Unless effective mechanism is put in place, political patronage is poised to come back in next year’s election. Patronage politics in the ARMM is not simply sustained by feudal culture; it is primarily a creation of politicians in Manila in their search for votes and stooges in Moro areas.

If I may be allowed to change course as a way to cap my comments – comments which are generally product of unmet expectations on the peace process, it is my firm belief that it is primarily the government that calls the shot in forging a peace agreement. A group like the MILF is not in the position to impose its will against any government. If the government wants a peace agreement signed, then an agreement can happen. If it doesn’t want to, then no peace agreement is possible. On the contrary, the MILF could not be faulted for taking a firm position. A single misstep in negotiation would make the MILF meet its doom. The latter must have learned its hard lessons from earlier mistakes of the MNLF.

On balance, there is no doubt that the MILF has gained much stride in spreading its wings both internally and externally. Patience, persistence, clear vision and comprehensive strategy of engagements must be the key for the MILF having reached its current status. But given the longevity of the peace “process” (with emphasis on the process) and how domestic forces and foreign powers have made their presence and interest entrenched in Moro areas these past years by riding on in such “process,” even projecting themselves as concerned in resolving the Mindanao conflict, we have to ask if the participation or involvement of other countries facilitate or in fact prolong and complicate the resolution of the Mindanao conflict. While some of these countries provide and sell arms to the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), they endeavor, too, to project as charitable donors to the Moros by giving them development assistance, although during war both arms and development simply cancel out each other. Further, why is it that in times of peace, those countries take a posture or mode of readiness to extend assistance as if the Moros could not live without them, yet, when push comes to shove like Erap’s all out war and the war resulting from the bungling of the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MoA-AD) in 2008, they would just go home leaving the Moros devastated and couldn’t even care to issue statements of displeasure against oppression, against injustice, and so on?

Yet, when the smoke of war subsides and they come back, such countries are just as welcomed as before as if they are real and credible referees and truly charitable donors. To think that such ugly situation did not just happen once or twice. It has become a cycle, creating false impressions on the GPH that it could just wage war against the Moros anytime since those purported referees and donors would just leave anytime, unmindful of how dirty the game has become. They come back and continue to do ceasefire monitoring, rehabilitation, extension of assistance and so on, until the next critical moments happen and another war devastates Muslim areas, and then they would leave again. This charade has to stop.

A deeper look into such countries’ geopolitical interests in Moro areas reveal complicity with the peace process since while they purport to support it and the legitimate aspiration of the Moros for respectable self-rule, these countries couldn’t even wait for the peace process to be concluded – if it could still be concluded – as they arbitrarily enter into contracts with the Philippine government on the remaining resources of the Moros particularly strategic ones like the oil in the Sulu Sea. While they throw crumbs called economic or development assistance to the Moros from time to time, the fact that they are already in control of such resources put the whole logic of peace process in serious question. It is most probable that by the time the peace process is concluded, there would be nothing or no viable resources left for the Moros.

Agreeably, the MILF’s option is limited, a reason why it could not stare at or address head-on such complicity. But the party with the largest option is the GPH; at the very least, she should have the moral scruples, or at least, consistency and must be able to realize the hubris in doing a peace process while allowing “big brothers” to screw the resources of the other party in the conflict. In our view, unless this is addressed to bring credibility back to the peace process given the manifold interests and international forces that now devour Moro areas, there is reason for the public to be wary whether a GRP-MILF peace agreement is still relevant or not. Unless saved, the rare moment in history may as well slip from our hands once again.

Daghang salamat!

(MindaViews is opinion section of Mindanews. Julkipli Wadi is Associate Professor Islamic Studies at the University of the Philippines Diliman.)

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