PEACETALK: Between Davao and Manila: An appointment with the BBL

There is a famous story from the Middle East about man not being able to escape his fate: A wealthy merchant from the city of Baghdad has sent a servant to the market to buy goods, yet upon his return to his master, he is shaking with fear. Asking for the fastest horse and determined to disappear from Baghdad to the city of Samarra, he explains that a woman waved at him before. The woman turned out to be Death, making a horrifying gesture at the servant, who then ran away as fast as he could. Listening to the man, the merchant has lent him his horse and wished him well. After, he walked to the market and faced Death. He asked: Why did you threaten my beloved servant? And Death said: I was not intending to scare him away. My gesture indicated surprise. I did not expect him to be in Baghdad, for I wanted to meet him tonight in Samarra.


As commentators, historians and current pundits are observing the events of 2014 through the lens of a potential major conflict which is about to erupt (the more than ever evident cracks in the Middle East, return of war to Europe through the outskirts of Ukraine etc.), every local context could become a powder keg, suitable and capable of blowing up.


Is it the same with Mindanao in 2014? Gone is the enthusiasm of late 2012 and early 2014 when the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro (FAB) and Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB) have been signed, respectively. Peace has arrived, and by all means, we have come closer to the final stages. But expectations are soaring. Perceptions and misperceptions develop own dynamics more often than not. Still, the delicately woven fabric of the ceasefire, the peace talks and a more or less quiet ground situation make us if not optimists, then at least not cynics. But the more time is passing, and the more delayed the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) ultimately becomes the harder will be the cries for justice and the moans of disappointment from all sectors will be.


Despite the fact that the most recent news indicate that the final draft will be submitted to Congress within this month, the mechanics of the BBL drafting and submission remain at times vague. So far, we don’t know much about the content (though several versions are allegedly leaking and floating around). What matters as of now – a traditional factor in the Bangsamoro Peace Process- are the connecting points between ground and the peace talks – and not to forget, the geopolitical complexities shining down on Mindanao.


There are already several tangential connecting points between Mindanao and the rest of the world. In light of the current sea disputes between the Philippines and China, some analysts ponder upon the unnecessary burden of internal strife and the strategic necessity of a peaceful settlement between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). The modernization of the Armed Forces would thus need to focus on external threats and security – not the long-time overdue pacification of the land of promise. Moreover, the crisis areas and hot-spots popping up between the Holy Land and Mesopotamia, as well as between the Indian Subcontinent and the South China Sea. Claims of ISIS-terrorists seeking refuge in the marshes of Central Mindanao are not making the average Juan feel safer. The Gaza tragedy throws its shadows out on the rest of the Muslim world in the Ummah.


And pain and suffering is still felt in countless barangays across Mindanao. Never before has Jose Diokno’s slogan “Justice delayed, is justice denied” gained as much importance as now.


I am very well aware of the logical fallacy of putting many issues into one. But isn’t it peculiar, that years after the Maguindanao Massacre the victims continue to wait for tangible results of the trial? Pockets of municipalities and barangays throughout Western and Central Mindanao are still affected by eruptions of violence; from the wave of kidnappings and criminal violence of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) and its diverse offshoots in Sulu and Basilan, to the perpetual suffering and displacement in communities in Central Mindanao, either sparked by the conflict between the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) close to Datu Piang, Maguindanao, or land conflict across the fields (Matalam, Tulunan) and snakefish area (Carmen) of North Cotabato. Not to mention the province of Lanao where weeks ago AFP and MILF on the ground created a precarious situation resulting in a bloody misunderstanding.


But still: In light of editorials which are often marked by skepticism, critique without recommendations and a seemingly bizarre and nostalgic longing for conflict in the worst case scenario – by actually mentioning the most feared three-letter-word of humanity – stakeholders, civil society and all citizens of Mindanao need to stand up for a commitment to peace. Every move which might trigger a confrontation could lead to consequences which no one would dare imagine. In every – yes, now I am saying it, pronouncing the word – war, it is the civilians who will suffer, no matter how just the cause is. Threats – even silent ones – of armed confrontation may be a strategic voice of bargaining, fear-mongering and intimidation but ultimately remain words. Shouldn’t we after all speak good words, and if not inclined towards it, rather stay silent?


Will the current peace talks be sometime known as the days and weeks which shook Mindanao? So far no, and I hope it stays like this, although the upcoming days and weeks will be marked yet again by cautious optimism and technical pragmatism in the discussions about the core content of the BBL. Deadlines will be proposed, postponed, dissuaded. One step forward, two jumps back, one zigzag move to the side and a small breakthrough. Then – stagnation. Peace takes time.


And these days, many lines have been drawn in parallel to previous chapters of eruption of conflict in Mindanao due to instability on the higher-level or the ground.


1) Firstly, the immediate past: 2008 MoA-AD. On the one hand the institutional and procedural challenges prevail to an extent, such as the shadowy presence of the constitution over the current workshop-type peace talks, the specters of Congress and Supreme Court and the intricate patterns of technicalities which are destined to be controversial (plebiscite; wealth-sharing; governance). On the other hand, the very human, emotional and cultural feelings of the Mindanawons need to be considered; inclusivity, free and prior informed consent, respecting the rights of others (Christians, non-Islamized lumads) and maybe simply a feeling of happiness inside, without ounces of fear sparked by uncertainty. For uncertainty stirs a lack of comfort which often triggers something more than just questions. Statements of negotiators and facilitators aim at stabilizing hearts and minds, yet ultimately the clock is ticking.

2) Secondly, the not so recent but impactful past, for after all it’s not the first time that a lawless group has been causing havoc throughout Central Mindanao. The war in 2003 started with an operation against the Pentagon Gang which at times was suspected to be an invisible column of the MILF. Needless to be reminded of how the story ended: The Buliok War ruined much of the trust between the two parties rebuilt after the 2000 all-out-war and took the lives of too many. Currently, there is no major Kidnap-for-Ransom group inflicting disorder and disarray on communities (not counting the notorious ASG). Instead, the ominous splinter BIFF is occupying the headlines by harassing military detachments and one operation against the group occurred more than half a year ago. They are still out there and as such a permanent target for potential moves against them. History teaches that wheels of war are hard to stop if set in motion. It is not clear if this group ironically, paradoxically and unwillingly supports the peace process by exerting pressure and showing the bad consequences of displacement and death to the parties, or spoils it by inflicting unnecessary suspicions and mistrust on the main negotiating parties, not to mention the sinister symbolism of certain acts in the past.


Yet: No footnotes or epilogues shall follow insha’Allah. Even if both parties need to consult the dictionary or thesaurus on certain wordings, they better deal with it right here and right now and in the form of an even flow. Even if next week will pass without a final agreement on the BBL, or a controversy about a recurrent issue will erupt – another mediation and negotiation effort will certainly follow. But surviving only by extension is not the key. Genuine commitment and thorough planning for all possible scenarios is needed from both parties.


The notion of fighting wars not only outside – along the rivers and the basins of Maguindanao, the hills of Lanao and the rice fields of North Cotabato – but inside – in the hotel rooms and conference halls and press areas – has never subsided. The dedication of the peace panels and their patience and their truths will be tested. It will be tested to a degree of blood, sweat and tears I may believe. And it is only one battle which has begun, considering the BBL discussion in Congress to come. Only time will tell what will happen. I choose to believe.


I believe in women and youth who go on the streets in Manila, Davao and Cotabato City. Further, I believe in commanders and colonels who shared rice and water during last year’s peace advocacies and who have been slowly forgetting the legacies of the past which has sent their forces to battles. I also do believe in countless neighbors who start to know each other, “court” each other and love each other. I recognize that whilst often you can’t forget, you can still forgive. You should. In times of turmoil, a moral compass should be the light to guide us through uncertainty. As clichéd as it sounds, hope dies last.


And empathy is something what we all need – for the soldiers from Luzon dragged from the shores of Ilocos into a land distant from their own, the guerillas from Liguasan who have nothing else to believe than in their most heartfelt and essential faith – and most importantly, the omnipresent civilian in many shapes and appearances who just wants to live in peace safely with his family, not starving and suffering, not wanting to take up arms for whatever side but trapped in the waves of doom inflicted on his land.


A similar tale to the first story of the merchant exists in both Jewish and Islamic traditions. In the latter version, the angel of death is visiting the Prophet Suleiman – also known to mankind as the Judeo-Christian King Solomon. The angel of death takes the shape of a human and stares in Suleiman’s court at a man. After the angel is gone, the man dares to ask his king what just happened. Suleiman tells him that it was the angel of death. The man fears for his life and asks Suleiman to bring him to India (in an alternate version: China). The king graciously summons another angel of winds and his servant is brought miles away. Suleiman later faces the angel and asks why he gazed at one of his men. The angel of death explained that he was surprised to meet him at the King’s court, for he expected him in India…


There’s no space for self-fulfilling prophecies in Mindanao. There have been too many. Blessed is this land, its seeds should thrive, not burn.

(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. PeaceTalk is open to anyone who wishes to share his/her views on peace in Mindanao. Hasan T. Laponte is the pen name of a development worker who has been working with community development organizations in Mindanao since 2012. The author requested the use of a pseudonym).