PEACETALK: There is no greater prize than peace and prosperity

(Permission was granted to MindaNews to reprint this piece of British Ambassdor to the Philippines Stephen Lillie, as printed in the Philippine Star)

My term as Ambassador in Manila is nearing an end.  I return one last time to a subject close to my heart – the Mindanao Peace Process.   Once again the front pages suggest bumps in the road ahead.

I arrived in the Philippines just under a year after the ill-fated “MOA-AD”. On my first visit to Mindanao the camps were still full of internally displaced people. International observers worried about radicalism gaining strength. Although talks continued, it looked unlikely that an agreement could be reached ahead of national elections in 2010.

The election of President Aquino brought new hope.   His meeting with MILF Chairman Murad in Tokyo caught many people by surprise. It was bold. There were undoubtedly risks for both men. But they were undoubtedly right.  The chance for peace does not come around very often and they grasped it. Since then, we have witnessed the further courage, commitment and tenacity shown by both parties which last October resulted in the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro.

The international community rightfully lauded the achievement.  The British Foreign Secretary, William Hague, described it as “a testament to the commitment and vision of the parties”.  The Economist magazine said it was the best news to come out of the Philippines in 2012.  It seemed to encapsulate the positive changes that were taking place in the Philippines more generally.

We always knew there would be challenges after the agreement was signed. Our own experience in Northern Ireland, which I have referred to in these columns, told us so. President Aquino himself said “the devil is in the details”.  As I prepare to leave the Philippines, those details are the focus of ongoing discussions as the parties work to agree annexes to last October’s agreement.  Some are now concerned that the momentum of formal discussions has lapsed and are anxiously looking for further tangible signs that progress is still on track.

The detailed annexes are clearly important: together with the framework agreement they will form the comprehensive agreement which will be the basis for reform in Mindanao ahead of 2016. But so is the bigger picture, and the bigger picture is the shared vision of justice and peace which President Aquino laid out with Chairman Murad last October.  I would disagree with anyone saying that the process is in crisis. But the same energy and boldness we saw last October is again needed, and the same willingness to be creative and flexible, to give and take.

In this situation concessions by one party or another are not weakness, and well- judged risks are not reckless.  In political negotiations, deadlines often come and go.  I remember thinking that 2010 was a critical year, then 2011 and 2012.  But now the clock really is ticking and every month is critical. This administration has rightly made peace in Mindanao a part of its legacy. But this administration will end in 2016, so the time available to devise and implement the agreement is not indefinite.

This is not of course Britain’s peace agreement. It is that of the Filipino people, Christians, Muslims and Lumads. But I am proud that Britain has been a friend of the process, and we will remain so. If I could be granted one wish as I leave the Philippines it would be that all those involved prove wrong the naysayers who think the Philippines can’t do this.  The Philippines can, and the prize will be worth it, because there is no greater prize than peace and prosperity. (MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. PeaceTalk is open to anyone who wants to share his/her views on peace in Mindanao. Stephen Lillie is the British Ambassador to the Philippines. Permission was granted to MindaNews to reprint this piece of British Ambassdor to the Philippines Stephen Lillie, as printed in the Philippine Star)