RIVERMAN’S VISTA: Mindanao Specter over APEC Summit

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CAGAYAN DE ORO CITY (MindaNews /19 Sept) — The Philippines will have a good moment in the sun in November when we host the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders’ Summit. Its an opportune time to be holding the APEC Summit in our country with the Philippine economy performing well and the President Aquino’s performance and trust ratings back at high levels. The summit’s coinciding with the opening salvos of the 2016 election campaign is also a good thing; we can show off our working democracy with all the noise and intensity that accompanies it. There will of course be some inconveniences, with traffic likely to be a sore thumb that week. That the days of the summit, November 18 and 19, have been declared non-working holidays will hopefully ease gridlock and make Manila a more pleasant experience for our visitors.

As we prepare for the APEC summit, it should be said that the government and the private sector has done a really good job in making our hosting of APEC world-class. The preparatory conferences have been done well and without a hitch. It seems that the participants in all these pre-Summit meetings have been enjoying them and have maximized their value for economic and cultural exchange.

I was in the government in 1996 when the Philippines last hosted the APEC Summit with President Fidel V. Ramos welcoming the leaders to Manila. That was challenging to do and we did that well. The Aquino government has done the same and risen to the challenge. It should be congratulated for its good preparations.

I am personally hoping for the success of the summit. In fact, I am preparing now a series of welcoming articles to publish during that period to help the country have a good and united face before the visitors.

Recently, however, two developments from Mindanao threaten to be a specter over the APEC Summit. These are the Bangsamoro question and the Lumad killings. I urge our decision-makers to pay attention to these two matters so the country does not suffer a black eye during the run-up to the summit. Maybe I might be exaggerating this, but I am concerned that things could come to a head on these issues in November and crises could flare up if they are not addressed early.

For the Bangsamoro question, by November, we should have clarity on whether a Bangsamoro Basic Law will be enacted by Congress and on whether that law is acceptable to the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). While the MILF leadership has promised that there will be no going back to war if there is no BBL or if the one enacted does not conform with the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro, tensions would sure rise and probably reach a crescendo in November, coinciding with the APEC Summit.

In addition to the failure around the BBL, charges will soon be filed against MILF officers and soldiers for the Mamasapano incident. Preliminary investigation will follow and again, in November, a critical point in the investigation could be reached. Again, tensions would be exacerbated as a result of this criminal process.

I suggest to the government that they be pro-active in dealing with the implications of the BBL failure and the consequences of the Mamasapano criminal investigation. With the cooperation of the MILF leadership, we should be able to avoid embarrassment.

This is more difficult in the case of the Lumad killings. Unless those killings are stopped and the ones responsible are held accountable, the tension will continue and simmer, even spread in Lumad land all over Mindanao.

Even without the APEC Leader’s Summit, the government must act with urgency to address the Lumad situation. But with the summit happening soon, this situation could explode in our faces as APEC host.

In another article published in Rappler, I have argued that the first thing to be done is to demilitarize the area and for peace zones to be declared in all affected Lumad areas. The military and the NPA must withdraw immediately; the tribal militia in Surigao del Sur and elsewhere must be disarmed; and those who killed the Lumad educators and leaders should be arrested, charged, and held accountable for the murders they committed.

I also support an international investigation, under the help of Vicky Tauli-Corpus who is UN Rapporteur for the rights of indigenous peoples. This can be conducted in parallel with a Commission on Human Rights (CHR) investigation. This is necessary not only to determine the facts of the killings and aid in the prosecution also to identify the root causes of the conflict within Lumad territory. I fully trust Chito Gascon, the new Chairman of the CHR but it would work best if he put together a mission composed of credible and independent individuals that will take on the task of investigation.

Government agencies like the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) must also now do their job. The NCIP must strictly implement Free and Prior Informed Consent in Lumad areas and the DENR must suspend or even revoke mining and other natural resources permits and agreements that may be the roots of the conflict. The Department of Education (DEPED) also has a special role in addressing the Lumad situation as schools and educational leaders have been particularly attacked in this conflict. It must work with the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines and other religious organizations so that Lumad communities would feel secure and their teachers and children are not under threat.

I can imagine marches and demonstrations protesting the Lumad killings during the APEC summit. International solidarity is accelerating as well with many sympathetic to the cause of the Lumad. If many Lumad peoples and communities are still in evacuation centers in November, foreign journalists and international activists will have a heyday flying to Mindanao and highlighting the injustices being done to the Lumad. This can all be avoided if government paid attention and take the necessary steps so that the Lumad will be secure and at peace.

Mindanao is quite far from imperial Manila. But in November, during the APEC Leader’s Summit, this great island could be the talk of the conference, at least in its corridors, and not in a good way. Lets work together so that this does not happen and we can enjoy the laurels of a successful APEC hosting.

(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 of the Philippines Peace Panel that negotiated with the MILF from January-June 2010. He is currently the Dean of the Ateneo School of Government. Dean Tony can be reached at Tonylavs@gmail.com. Follow him on Facebook: tlavina@yahoo.com and on Twitter: tonylavs.)

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