ANGAY-ANGAY LANG: Kalinaw Mindanaw: The Story of the GRP-MNLF Peace Process, 1975-1996 (13)

13th of 18 parts 

(This is a revised version of the book “KALINAW MINDANAW: The Story of the GRP-MNLF Peace Process, 1975-1996” published in 2000.) 

Chapter 6. They Are Not Our Enemy

The peace process in the time of President Fidel V. Ramos was completed in record time of 47 months, from the first exploratory talks in Tripoli in October 3-4, 1992, to the signing of the Peace Agreement in Malacañang on September 2, 1996, Or a little more if we include the private visit of then presidential candidate Ramos to Libya in February 1992.

It is not our intention to re-tell the story here. This is already amply and excellently narrated in the volume entitled Break Not the Peace, The story of the GRP-MNLF Peace Negotiations, 1992-1996, a firsthand account by no less than President Ramos himself. What we will do is merely to highlight certain details which we feel should also reveal deeper insights into the human facets of the negotiations.

Opening Rites

Unknown to many, the real opening rites of the formal talks took place in Quezon City, not in Jakarta, to satisfy the requirements of Philippine sovereignty and also to emphasize the reality that this problem is a domestic problem. It opened quietly at the Ivory Function Room of the Asian Institute of Tourism Hotel in Quezon City late in  the afternoon of October 5, 1993 while a signal 3 storm raged outside, with the formal delivery and acceptance of Chairman Misuari’s “Letter of Readiness.”

Present in the affair were Ambassador Manuel Yan, chair of the GRP Panel, along with three members of his panel, State Prosecutor Sandiale, Sambolawan, ARMM Vice Governor Nabil Tan and this author, Prof. Rudy Rodil. The MNLF was represented by Ustadz Zain Jali and Rev. Absalom Cerveza. Rajab Azzarouq, Libyan Ambassador to Manila represented the OIC Committee of the Six. The ceremony took only fifteen minutes. There were some media representatives there. But because of the raging storm two TV teams came late, twenty minutes apart. They each begged for a re-enactment of the ceremonies for the camera, and both panels gamely obliged.

The FVR Vision

President Ramos had  a clear vision of what he wanted to do to attain peace in the country, as in Mindanaw. He said so in his first State of the Nation Address and indicated it unmistakably in the series of subsequent moves he made. He created the National Unification Commission (NUC) whose task it was to formulate and recommend “a viable general amnesty program and peace process leading to a just, comprehensive and lasting peace in the country.” After conducting extensive multi-sectoral consultations in 71 out of 76 provinces all over the nation, the NUC recommended six paths to peace which were mutually re-enforcing.

The first path was the pursuit of social, economic and political reforms that would address directly the root causes of the internal armed conflicts and social unrest.

The second path is consensus-building and empowerment for peace at all levels of the population, national and local, ensuring people’s participation in the peace process.

The third path is the pursuit of peaceful, negotiated settlement with the different rebel groups.

The fourth path is the implementation of programs for reconciliation, reintegration to mainstream society, and, rehabilitation.

The fifth path seeks to ensure the welfare and protection of civilians, and to reduce the impact of the armed conflicts on them where such could not be avoided.

The sixth path seeks to build, nurture and enhance a positive climate for peace through peace advocacy and education.

In line with the third path, several government negotiating panels were formed, one of which was the panel that would handle negotiations with the Southern Philippines Autonomous Groups (GRP-SPAG).

Later, President Ramos revealed that even while he was still candidate for the presidency, he indicated a clear awareness of the various dimensions of the MNLF-led Moro rebellion, one of which was that any resolution would necessarily involve the Libyan government. Unknown to the media, he, along with Congressman Jose de Venecia Jr., traveled to Libya in February 1992, met with Col. Muammar Khaddafy at the latter’s desert camp in Sirte and obtained the Libyan leader’s “assurances of support for, and assistance to, the peace process.”[1] (True to his word, the Libyan leader indeed supported the peace process all the way from the beginning to its happy end in September 1996.) He did not divulge the details and purpose of his trip until he was fairly certain of the success of the GRP-MNLF formal peace talks in 1996. But he was sure of his steps from then on. Very early after his induction into office, he said, “I instructed my close advisers to begin the exploratory phase of the negotiations.”[2]

Exploratory Talks

The Exploratory Talks did more than just explore the possibility of reviving the negotiation with the Moro National Liberation Front, it also paved the way, set the tone and defined the agenda of the formal talks. President Ramos carefully chose his two-man panel. Congressman Eduardo Ermita of Batangas who had spent much of his military career in Mindanaw, and also served as administrative officer of the Barbero Panel in 1976, led the team; Congressman Nur Jaafar of Tawi-Tawi, a former MNLF himself and much respected by active MNLF leaders  completed the panel. Silvestre Afable, former Assistant Secretary and Spokesman of the AFP, provided the technical support.

“My role was only accidental,” said Congressman Jaafar. When the President requested Speaker de Venecia to nominate one Muslim Congressman to join Congressman Ermita to Libya, the Speaker allowed the Muslim Representatives to decide the matter by a drawing of lots. Jaafar won. But he admitted that he had maintained close relationship with MNLF leaders, a product of intimacy from long years of association, from high school to college. These do not resent his being former comrade-in-arms in the MNLF and now a representative in the House of Representatives.[3] It was an accident that served the peace process well to the end.

Prior to the formal meeting, Misuari sought a private conversation with Jaafar at his (Misuari’s) hotel room. They talked for five hours, from 9:00 in the evening to 2:00 in the morning. Misuari was particularly curious to know why, of all people, the government sent Eduardo Ermita who was a general in the Armed Forces, and therefore their enemy. Jaafar painstakingly explained that as a military officer, Ermita was involved in civil relations, not in combat. So, the MNLF Chairman agreed to meet formally with them provided they did not bring cameras with them, video or still, because he did not want his picture taken with the government panel.[4] With him were Dr. Tham Manjoorsa, Dr. Abdurahman Amin, Ustadz Baki, Cong, Hatimil Hassan, Ibra, all members of the Central Committee.

At the negotiation proper the following day, after the formal opening and the usual speeches, the presiding officer declared a recess for coffee break and left  the two panels to work things out among themselves. It was a long fruitful informal session for the rest of the morning, very relaxed and cordial.[5]  Misuari agreed to resume negotiation with the government.

Over dinner that evening, at the  penthouse of the hotel, the two panels, along with some members of their respective committees, agreed to prepare the draft of the Memorandum of Understanding. The technical group, one representative from the MNLF and Mr. Afable sat down and came up with the draft. Then they met formally again the following day to finalize and sign the document.[6]

At their next meeting the following year in Cipanas, West Java, in Indonesia, the GRP added a topnotch lawyer to their team: Teresita de Castro, an Assistant Secretary at the Department of Justice. The MNLF came in full force, said Jaafar, this time including a good number of field commanders. The Deputy Secretary General of the OIC was there; Amb. Sastrohandoyo Wiryono of Indonesia presided. This time they finalized the agenda for the formal peace talks. But it was not that easy.[7]

To implement the Tripoli Agreement, the MNLF insisted on the establishment of the provisional government; the GRP said no because the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanaw (ARMM), a duly constituted regular government as mandated by the Constitution, is in place. It could not be dismantled to give way to a provisional government. The discussion naturally became heated. But it was settled when both parties agreed on a common terminology, “transitional implementing structure and mechanism,” even if they disagreed strongly on the content of the same. To the MNLF it meant provisional government; to the GRP it signified the ARMM. No matter, the content, they agreed, could be resolved later.[8]

The agenda for the Formal Peace Talks, participated in by the Deputy Secretary General of the OIC and the OIC Ministerial Committee of Six, would focus on the modalities for the full implementation of the Tripoli Agreement in letter and spirit, to include (a) those portions of the Agreement left for further or later discussion, and (b) transitional implementing structure and mechanism. The date shall be on or before June 30, 1993 at a place to be mutually agreed upon.[9]

This writer asked Congressman Jaafar, how sure was he that the MNLF was willing to settle? He said he could already read “from the way some questions were propounded to him by most of the members of the MNLF in private, that they were willing to talk peace already without sacrificing their objectives.”  Their positive perception of the government negotiators and the President who sent them was a factor, too. It was explained to them that President Ramos understood the problem of the MNLF and he was willing to come across to meet their demands provided it did not violate the Constitution.[10]

For their part, the Libyan government’s reception for the mission was, in stark contrast to the mood back in 1976, at its best, “full protocol treatment and assistance,” as they say in foreign service.  They came to Tripoli via Malta. At Malta they were met by the Ambassador of the Libyan People’s Bureau in that country. They were provided with First Class accommodations, complete with limousine service, throughout the visit,  including the boat trip across the Mediterranean sea. Libyan protocol officers escorted the delegates during their stay.[11]

As expected the Talks did cover highly political matters. It was part of the nationwide effort to heal old wounds and start a new page in history. It was an integral part of a bigger peace process and, many are not aware, it was also an intimate interplay between the psychological process and the legal issues.

President Ramos set the tone of the negotiations. Aside from the usual instruction to conduct the formal talks within the framework of the Constitution and the laws of the land, he emphasized that  the “conduct of the formal talks shall be in line with the aim of the national comprehensive peace program to seek a principled and peaceful resolution of armed conflict, with neither blame nor surrender, but with dignity for all.”[12]

In addition, as early as August 1993, when the GRP Panel was newly constituted, there was already an informal but unwritten understanding within the Panel that the MNLF people are not enemy; they are our citizens with whom we have differences of opinion. Anyone of us could go across, as it were, and make friends with anyone of the MNLF without fear of being cited for high treason or for fraternizing with the enemy. We were not expected to report what transpired in our conversations. This had the effect of contributing to a positive atmosphere in the talks. It set the tone of goodwill for all of us.[13]

Consistently present in the big meetings was Peter Damanik, Indonesian ambassador to the Philippines whose term expired during the talks; Amb. Abu Hartono took his place. (MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. A peace specialist, Rudy Buhay Rodil is an active Mindanao historian and peace advocate)

Tomorrow: GRP Negotiating Position

[1] Fidel V. Ramos, Break not the Peace, The Story of the GRP-MNLF Peace Negotiations. Privately printed, 1996. Pp. 3-4.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Interview with Congressman Nur Jaafar (Tawi-Tawi) at his office, Batasan Building, Quezon City, Nov 15, 1999, 3:00 p.m. Later  “Jaafar Interview.”

[4] Jaafar interview.

[5] Final Report of the GRP Panel to The Speaker, House of Representatives, Philippine Congress, October 12, 1992. Computer copy,  12p. p. 2. Jaafar interview.

[6] Jaafar interview.

[7] Jaafar interview.

[8] Jaafar interview.

[9]Statement of Understanding, The  Second Round of Exploratory Talks between the Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP) and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) held at Istana Presiden, Cipanas, West Java, Indonesia on April 14-16, 1993.

[10] Jaafar interview.

[11] Final Report of the GRP Panel to The Speaker, House of Representatives, Philippine Congress, October 12, 1992. Computer copy,  12p. P. 1.

[12] President Ramos’ Memorandum of Instructions to The Chairman, Philippine Panel,  GRP-SPAG Formal Talks,  August 26, 1993.

[13] Personal Notes.

[14] Interview with Amb. Yan at his office at OPAPP, October 22, 1999. “Yan interview” later.