ANGAY-ANGAY LANG: Kalinaw Mindanaw: The Story of the GRP-MNLF Peace Process, 1975-1996 (14)

14th 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)

Part XIV
GRP Negotiating Position

The GRP position was the content of the R.A. 6734, the Organic Act of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanaw, re-arranged to match the provisions in the Tripoli agreement, and later presented item by item at the negotiation itself. Initially, these were rejected by the MNLF as agenda items but accepted as reference materials. Chairman Misuari insisted that they came with the understanding that the subject of the negotiation was the full implementation of the Tripoli Agreement in letter and spirit, not the Organic Act of ARMM.

Starting Right, Agreements in the First Round

A number of agreements were made in the First Round which set the tone for the whole process in the next three years.

First, as agreed upon in Cipanas, the Joint Secretariat composed of representatives from the GRP and MNLF Panels, Indonesia the host country and representing the OIC Ministerial Committee of the Six and the OIC Secretary General was established. This was a very sound decision because its very existence compelled both parties to cooperate rather than compete. The accuracy of the Executive Summary of the proceedings are very vital in the negotiations.

Second, the agenda of the formal peace talks were categorized and clustered for the appropriate committees, as follows:

Support Committee 1 – National Defense and Regional Security Force
Support Committee 2 – Education
Support Committee 3 – Economic and Financial system, Mines and Minerals
Support Committee 4 – Administrative System, Representation in National
Government, Legislative Assembly and Executive Council
Support Committee 5 – Judiciary and Introduction of Shariah Law

Third, the reactivation of the Mixed Committee (Article III, Par. 11 of the Tripoli Agreement) whose task was “to study in detail points left for discussion in order to reach a solution thereof in conformity with the provisions of this agreement,” provided the framework within which to discuss the less contentious issues first and the more difficult ones later.

Fourth, the formation of the Ad Hoc Working Group whose function was the “setting up of implementing structures and mechanism,” spared the two panels of having to wrestle with this most contentious issue at their level. The task was shifted to a committee whose members possessed the needed expertise.

Fifth, in order to create and sustain an atmosphere that is conducive to peace negotiations, an interim ceasefire agreement was signed. It took effect immediately and the same was to remain valid for the duration of the formal peace talks, unless extended by both parties. A Joint Ceasefire Committee composed of representatives of the GRP, the MNLF, with the help of the OIC represented by the Ministerial Committee of the Six, was to prepare the detailed guidelines and ground rules for the implementation of this ceasefire agreement.

The negotiating panels also agreed that the committees should do their work in Manila and Zamboanga, and elsewhere in Mindanaw.

Committee Assignments: Distributing the Work
Expanding the Peace Front

A preliminary meeting was convened on December 2, 1993 in Manila to draw up the detailed schedule for activities ahead. One significant aspect of this meeting was when the MNLF sought the permission of the GRP to allow them to tap Muslims in government service to join as members of various MNLF committees. Ambassador Yan said yes without hesitation, asked the MNLF to give him their list so that appropriate clearance can be obtained from the President. The President promptly approved and gave the clearance.

At the government end, the President saw to it that no less than an undersecretary was assigned to chair each committee. The GRP panel’s position at the committee level was always cleared with their respective Cabinet Secretaries. Thus the chair negotiated with the assurance that he had the necessary official support. Committee work accomplished two things. One, the committee was engaged in a peace negotiation of its own; issues were pre-digested, as it were, and agreements reached were elevated to the Mixed Committee which would, in turn, make the appropriate recommendation to the Panel level negotiations. Two, it expanded the ranks of negotiators to more people; it opened new venues and opportunities for clarification of issues and building of relationships, even camaraderie. The phrase “confidence building measures” took on a new meaning.

Anyone who has participated in these, whether as active negotiators or merely as witnesses, can speak of new relationships developing from the level of the suspicious to something more cordial and more respectful. In the discussion of the various issues, there was a deepening appreciation and understanding of each other’s position, thus opening the way for more give and take. But where it was not possible to give, at least there was the acceptance that despite honest to goodness efforts, certain problems were presently irresolvable and no ill will was triggered by disappointments.

A few examples should illustrate the point. During the first meeting of Support Committee 3, the first disagreement was on how to start the meeting. The MNLF proposed to begin with du’a or Islamic prayer; the GRP agreed. Then the GRP suggested to follow with the singing of the national anthem; the MNLF objected, and relented only when they were told that the GRP members would do the singing. Four meetings later, they closed their three-day session by singing together in a bistro in Dipolog City, upon the invitation of local officials. In subsequent meetings, there were less arguments and more “reaching out and working together” to figure out how to eliminate the differences of opinion and arrive at a consensus which was doable. Undersecretary of Finance, Juanita Amatong, the chair of the GRP support committee, admitted she resented the presidential appointment in the beginning, but several meetings later, she confessed that she saw things in a better light and was in fact more appreciative of her participation. She was always brilliant and patient especially when she elaborated on the intricacies of finance and national economy. This was the only committee where the GRP chair had two co-chairs, Nestor Mijares of NEDA and Joel Muyco of the Mines and Geosciences Bureau. Jose Lorena, chair of the MNLF side, was a sharp lawyer and always argued to clarify and ensure that every point of consensus was doable.

Support Committee 5 was probably one of the harder nuts to crack. For a number of meetings they could not come to any agreement; it was always a stalemate. Undersecretary of Justice, Demetrio Demetria of the GRP committee insisted on operating within the framework and the primacy of the Constitution; Zain Jali, chair of the MNLF side stood by their position that the Shari’ah is based on the Qur’an which is God made and cannot subordinate itself to anything that is man-made such as a constitution. It took them sometime but in the end they also reached an agreement.

Availability of expertise was one important reason why the committee meetings were held in the Philippines. Thus, it was not surprising to see people from (GRP) DECS negotiating with fellow officials from (MNLF) DECS. In Support Committee 2 – Education, the chair was an undersecretary of education and the members of the committee were mostly from DECS, too, both national office and regional. In the beginning it was DECS Undersecretary Nestor Kalaw, assisted by Assistant Secretaries Mar Salvatierra and Ramon Bacani; at the fourth round, Undersecretary Gutierrez Mangansakan, a Maguindanaon Muslim, and Assistant Ramon Bacani concluded the work. On the MNLF side, their chair was a former deputy regional director of DECS, Jawali Laja and his other members were mostly DECS officials, one was a University of the Philippines professor. They had little difficulty understanding each other’s language when they discussed the various aspects of an educational system which would be appropriate and implementable within the autonomous region. It was relatively easy for them to come to an agreement.

In Support Committee 3 – Economic and Financial system, Mines and Minerals, the GRP panel was headed by the Undersecretary of Finance and her co-chairs were ranking officials of the Mines and Geosciences Bureau and NEDA (National Economic Development Authority). At the MNLF side, while the chair was a lawyer, he was quite familiar with the subject of finance and economics and was ably assisted by members, some of whom had extensive experience in banking, government finance or were ranking officials in the regional offices of the Finance Department itself. To their credit, they never pulled rank in or outside the negotiation table.

In Support Committee 1 on National Defense and Regional Security Force, Chair of the GRP panel was retired Gen. Feliciano Gacis, the Tausug speaking Undersecretary of Defense. His counterpart was Dr. Tham Manjoorsa. The two panels exhibited unusual patience in resolving their differences. They reached agreement on many details, except the most delicate one, the joining of the MNLF into the Armed Forces of the Philippines, and what to do with the rebels’ firearms. This was the last item to be resolved in the negotiations.

What was the effect of this on the principal negotiators? It was only during the 6th Mixed Committee meeting in General Santos City, July 26-28, 1995 that the MNLF panel expressed their belief in the sincerity of the GRP Panel. It took two years but it came. On the same occasion, the GRP Panel offered Misuari an Advisory Council within the Office of the President as transitional mechanism and the candidacy for the governorship of ARMM with assurance of support from the ruling party; Prof. Misuari said he would study it but later rejected both.

The visible gains of committee work were the points of consensus: 42 points of consensus in 1994; 81 in 1995, and 42 in 1996. Some items were further refined and compressed that is why the Peace Agreement is made up only of 154 consensus points. Until July 1975, Professor Misuari had consistently rejected the Constitution, the Organic Act of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanaw and the Autonomous Region itself. One year later, when he accepted the Southern Philippines Council for Peace and Development (SPCPD) in June 1996, and the candidacy for governor of ARMM, he also made a 360 degree turn and accepted what he had earlier rejected.

Impasse in the Talks

The negotiations hit an impasse at least twice, the first during the First Round in Jakarta, and the second at the 7th Mixed Committee meeting in Zamboanga City. In the first, it took back channeling between the two panels and the direct intervention of Indonesian Foreign Minister Ali Alatas and a statement of assurance from President Ramos to get the talks back on track. In the second, both parties could not agree on an acceptable transitional structure and mechanism but refused to call it a collapse; the word “recess” while searching for fresh ideas was used instead.

The first impasse was totally unexpected. Chairman Misuari was reportedly offended by the statements made by President Ramos in his speech on November 6, 1993, at the third anniversary celebration of ARMM in Awang Maguindanao. The President said among others that “With or without the peace talks going on, we have to work doubly hard to make the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanaw succeed.”

How Chairman Misuari was persuaded to go back to the negotiating table was a demonstration of the effectivity of back channeling or informal backroom talks in negotiations. There was formal session in the morning of November 6 and it was supposed to resume at 3:00 in the afternoon. The GRP panel came on time but the leaders of the MNLF delegation were nowhere in sight. Misuari showed up at 6:30 in the evening and, visibly upset and restless, sat down, said nothing and excused himself after five minutes. By that time the members of the GRP delegation were already aware of the reason for the change in the Chairman’s mood.

The session resumed at 9:41 P.M. but then Misuari, two other MNLF leaders, Deputy Sec. Gen. of the OIC Mohammad Mohsin, Rajab Azzarouq, Libyan Ambassador to the Philippines went into an adjoining room for a private meeting. They emerged at 10:05. Misuari apologized to the Chair. The session resumed at 10:12 and was adjourned at 1: 50 A.M.

Misuari withdrew all his earlier statements expressing recognition and acceptance of the Organic Act as frame of reference unless satisfactory clarification is made. He reiterated that he did not recognize Philippine laws and the Philippine Constitution. He asserted that the sovereignty of the Bangsamoro people was usurped by Philippine colonialism and he reserves the right to reconsider the MNLF position in the present peace talks. Unless he is satisfied with the explanation of the GRP, he had no intention of pursuing the peace process anymore.

The GRP panel had a brief meeting that night. It was obvious from the exchanges that nobody knew exactly how to save the situation and there was nothing else to do but go home. Someone asked, “but there’s nothing to bring home?” Amb. Yan replied, “What can I do? Misuari does not want it anymore?” So, that was how the meeting ended and everybody went to sleep. But two people were not willing to leave the situation hanging like that.

On their way to their rooms, Congressman Ermita told Congressman Jaafar, “let’s talk in your room.” They talked and planned, they did not sleep that night. Later ARMM Vice Governor Nabil Tan joined them, then Patt Lontoc, chief of the GRP Secretariat, and Hellen Barber, vice consul of the Philippine Embassy in Jakarta. First, they decided that Jaafar should go and see the MNLF leaders close to Misuari to explore what could be done. They wanted the President to apologize publicly. “There is no way that a head of state would do that, it will never happen,” Jaafar replied. He tried to explain the side of the President; they invited him to the room of Misuari. This is how Congressman Jaafar recalls the conversation with Misuari. “I told the Chairman that it was not really the intention of the President to put one over the negotiation by making that statement during the anniversary. Like in a birthday party, if I go to your birthday party, shall I greet you, “May you have no more birthdays to come? Naturally, I have to tell you, may you have more birthdays to come. You have to believe me. President Ramos is very sincere in concluding this talks to its success. When he spoke at the anniversary celebration of ARMM, his statement was full of encouragement to the officials of the ARMM, to do a good work for the benefit of the people. It does not mean that he is trying to undermine the negotiation. I for one, if I can sense any betrayal on the part of government, I will resign immediately as one of the advisers of the panel.” Misuari apparently relented and said, “ah, let us see, if you can show me some concrete proofs that the government is sincere, I might reconsider my decision.” So, I went back to my room. Congressman Ermita was there, also Patt Lontoc and Hellen Barber. Then we agreed to send a memo to the President. From that lengthy conversation with Misuari and his leaders, Jaafar was able to determine what exactly to communicate to the President in the Memorandum.”

They worked till dawn. At 5:00 o’clock that morning they faxed the Memorandum to the President signed by no less than Amb. Yan himself. Two hours and a half later, the President’s reply was faxed in. It was a letter to Amb. Yan. President Ramos said, among others, “I wish you to convey to them in no uncertain terms that I am especially committed to treating the more contentious issues at a higher and mutually satisfying level to meet our shared aspirations for enduring peace and prosperity with dignity.”

Jaafar resumes his story. “I immediately went to see Mohammad Mohsin, Deputy Sec. Gen. of the OIC and told him, I did my share of the job already to save the peace talks. It was now his turn to convince the other side to go back to the negotiating table.”

Little Episode at the Technical Staff’s Level

A member of the MNLF known to everybody as Cong was responsible for making a video recording of every minute of the negotiations. The GRP did not have such a facility. So, early in the talks, Cesar of the GRP negotiated with Cong to have a duplicate of the films. Given the cordial mood between the two panels in the early part of the negotiations, the duplication went smoothly until that afternoon that Misuari did not return to the session hall. Cong came on time to the session earlier than the rest as usual to set up his equipment, apparently unaware that his chairman was not coming. Late in the afternoon, when it became clear that there was an impasse, Cesar approached Cong and calmly said, “I suppose that means you will not be giving me copies of your films anymore.” “You bet, I won’t,” Cong just as calmly replied. But as soon as the session was resumed the following day, the two promptly resumed their duplication arrangement.

(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. A peace specialist, Rudy Buhay Rodil is an active Mindanao historian and peace advocate)

TOMORROW: SPCPD: Transitional Structure and Mechanism