ANGAY-ANGAY LANG: Kalinaw Mindanaw: The Story of the GRP-MNLF Peace Process, 1975-1996 (8)

8th  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 4. A Sorry Mix Up

The Mixed Committee meeting in Tripoli and the referendum-plebiscite in the territory of the autonomy were the two highlights of the first four months after the signing of the Tripoli Agreement. President Marcos determinedly pushed the referendum through, while Misuari and the OIC just as strongly resisted it. In the end, Marcos won: there were two autonomies, and no agreement on the implementation of the Tripoli accord and the sought-after resolution to the conflict remained incomplete.

Path Neatly Laid Out

A cursory reading of the Tripoli Agreement indicates that the things left to be done were laid out step by step,  so neatly — or so we thought — that it would not take long before the two parties could flesh out the unfinished portions of the document. Just to reiterate for emphasis, the two negotiating panels, acting as Mixed Committee,  were to meet, and they did,  in Tripoli from February 5 to March 3, 1977  to “study in detail the points left for discussion in order to reach a solution thereof in conformity with the provisions of this agreement.” (Sec. 11) in the Tripoli Agreement.  As soon as these points have been threshed out, there would be an initialing ceremony in Jeddah, followed by the final signing in  Manila. Then, the President would appoint a provisional government in the areas of the autonomy, which shall in turn prepare for the elections of the Legislative Assembly. This Assembly shall form the regular government.

It all sounded so clear-cut and simple. One would not expect any complications from then on.  But that was not the way it happened. Strange as it may seem, the two parties  failed to agree on their work and produced another deadlock. It took the intervention of the two heads of state, Presidents Marcos and Khaddafy to break the impasse.

The Mixed Committee in Tripoli

What really happened in Tripoli from February 5 to March 3, 1977?  Two vital documents give us detailed accounts of the events at that time, the Journal of Activities dated 6 Feb – 3 Mar 77 and the more detailed Proceedings of the Negotiation Talks between the Philippine Panel and the Moro National Liberation Front in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Building.

The Government Panel arrived in Tripoli on February 6,  Sunday. They were promptly informed that there would be a delay of two days because Secretary General Gaye of the OIC was still in Algeria.

There were no sessions for February 7 and 8.  Opening ceremonies were on February 9 but there was no session.  On February 10, the first session,  Nur Misuari requested for a recess to enable the MNLF to finish its position paper; the Chair gave him until February 13. No session for February 11 to 13.

The second session met on February 14 but still there was no paper from the MNLF. Only one of his three technical people, Maguindanao Zacaria Candao had arrived. Atty Pangalian Balindong and a third who was not named were not there yet.  No less than OIC Assistant Secretary General Tevetoglu requested President Marcos on February 1 to allow these three prominent personalities from Mindanaw, all government officials, to assist in the formulation of the MNLF paper.  Misuari was given two more days.  No session on February 15. There was supposed to be a meeting on February 16 but neither Misuari nor the presiding officer showed up. After waiting for an hour the Philippine Panel left. The government panel received its copy of the  MNLF paper at 10:00 o’clock that evening.

There were two sessions on February 17, Thursday,  one in the morning (11:30 A.M.  to 1:15 P.M.) and  another in the evening (5:30 to 9:00 P.M.). They discussed the task of the Mixed Committee and agreed on the format of the meeting.  Only two topics were covered on this date, the task itself, and the reading of the Accord. They took plenty of time arguing on whether their task was to “study, not to negotiate”  and therefore, at the end of the discussions, as the government panel claimed, they would give a “study report and not an agreement.”   Or  as averred by Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs Libya and presiding officer, Minister Ahmid Al-Atrash,  they should “prepare a draft agreement which will be initialed in Jeddah.” Or, as Misuari himself would assert, “when we came to this negotiation we never thought that we are coming here just to study. We always assumed that our task here is to find a final solution.”

As the presiding officer  read through  Article 1 of the document, he commented that said provision was final, meaning that that Mixed Committee was not supposed to discuss it anymore. When he uttered a similar remark in relation to Article 2, the territory of the autonomy, he drew an immediate  reaction from Undersecretary Barbero who said that Article 2 cannot stand alone, is not self-executory and cannot be considered separately from Article 16 on constitutional processes, meaning that the issue of the territory of the autonomy must be  made subject to a referendum. Both the presiding officer and Misuari agreed that Article 2 was final. Lengthy and repetitive exchanges followed (which lasted two hours!), mainly between the presiding officer and Undersecretary Barbero with neither side giving an inch.  When finally they reached a consensus to proceed, they went on with the reading of the Agreement, without comment from the two panels. And that was how the day’s two  sessions ended.

The controversy provoked by these disagreements spilled over into the next two sessions (10:10A.M.  – 2:50 P.M. and 6:20 – 7:40 p.m.) on February 19, Saturday and became even more heated.  At this time, they now had three documents before them, the Tripoli Agreement and the position paper of each panel in the format of a presidential decree.  Again, as they reached Article 2, the disagreements of the previous session re-surfaced with substantially the same arguments.

Towards the end of the evening session, when it became obvious that the negotiations were going to hit an impasse, Foreign Minister Treki entered the room, took over the Chair  and suggested that OIC Assistant Secretary General Jihad Tevetoglu be commissioned to prepare a working paper taking into consideration the Tripoli Agreement, the papers on the examples of Sudan and Iraq, and the working papers submitted earlier by the respective panels. Both panels agreed but reserved the right to introduce amendments as the need arose. Dr. Treki himself stressed that both panels had the right to delete or to add. Dr. Tevetoglu was given two days to prepare the paper.

February 20 (Sunday), 21 and 22 were no-session days. The compromise paper was delivered at 10:20 P.M. on February 22. The two panels were given a day to comment, so, the rest of February 23 was a no-session day.

February 24 opened on a negative note. That morning, Dr. Tevetoglu refused to accept the government panel’s counter proposal, allegedly because it did not conform to the draft he had prepared.  But he accepted the MNLF paper.

At the evening meeting, the presiding officer decided to convene the meeting despite the absence of the government panel whose Chair had earlier requested for a half day postponement by letter and by phone — they needed time, he said, to prepare a detailed commentary on the Tevetoglu working paper. The following day the presiding officer handed the minutes of said meeting to Undersecretary Barbero which the latter refused to even touch. The inability of all parties to agree to proceed with deliberation on Tevetoglu’s paper persisted until the deadline of March 3.  The longest sessions of the Mixed Committee were those on February 25, 5:20-9:00 P.M., or 3 hours and forty minutes and February 27, 11:20 a.m. to 5:35 p.m.,  or six hours non-stop, without lunch!. These  were focused mainly on the working paper and what transpired after,  with their respective re-narrations and laborious explanations and  clarifications of their side of the story — the OIC Secretary General Dr. Amadou Karim Gaye was present at this time. This included the reading into the records of the seven page, single space letter-commentary of the government panel on the Tevetoglu paper addressed to Dr. Tevetoglu himself. The government panel enumerated 48 points as reasons why they could not accept the Tevetoglu draft — nothing personal, they said.

The Tevetoglu working paper was in the form of a presidential decree; that of the MNLF was the same, and that of the government panel was in the form of an agreement. These differences in format as well as their content reflected all the disagreements they had earlier on the nature of the end product of the mixed committee’s work, and on whether Article 2 on territory was final or should be considered side by side with Article 16. These apparent differences may have prompted Dr. Tevetoglu to reject the government draft.

For its part, the government panel’s 48 reasons were sub-classified into  nine points showing that the paper contravened the letter and spirit of the Tripoli Agreement; 12 points highlighting the same number of items extraneous to the Tripoli agreement; 12 points  pointing to items impairing the national sovereignty and Constitution of the Philippines, and 15 points labeled as “other” objections.

They agreed to meet again on February 28 but then Undersecretary Barbero received  word from Manila instructing him to request for a recess while President Marcos and President Khaddafy tried to arrive at a consensus at their level over the phone. The meeting on March 3 was confined to a recapitulation of what transpired and closing remarks.

The Plebiscite

The story of the referendum-plebiscite on the Autonomous region for the Muslims in Southern Philippines was published in the Philippine Daily Express, the only existing metropolitan newspaper at that time. Following the story from the day it was first announced to the day it finally happened was a most unusual experience. For once, one would find the President uncertain about his moves, judging by the rapidity by which he changed his mind, as we shall see below.

The President announced on December 26, 1976, on the third day after the signing of the Tripoli Agreement, that a plebiscite would be conducted in the thirteen provinces to determine which of them would want to be part of the autonomous region. He stressed that this is in keeping with the Philippine government position that any settlement in Mindanaw must be in full accord with constitutional processes.

The following day, the President also said that he would consult with the MNLF to determine the date of the proposed plebiscite; he wanted to see if the plebiscite could be held before the resumption of talks on February 5 in Tripoli. Before the agreement is signed, he would have to issue a decree to determine the form of government for the region.

The next day, Marcos briefed Mindanaw local officials at Malacañang on the agreement. Details of the two hour meeting were not revealed to the public.

In second week of January, there was the sudden and unexplained appearance of the so-called Moro Reform Liberation Movement (MRLM) composed of rebel-surrenderees claiming to represent a majority of the inhabitants of the entire Muslim areas and to have a following of 26,000 fighters, half of whom fully armed. It  demanded that the government conduct a separate negotiation with its group in the second round of talks in Libya.

On February 5, 1977, Marcos decided that the plebiscite would be held after the talks on February 5 – March 3. The plebiscite questions would be limited to the issue as to which of the affected provinces would want to be included in the autonomous region and will not include other issues.

After a  week,  the President at last decided that the plebiscite would be held on February 21. He directed the Department of Public Information, the Department of Local Government and Community Development and the Commission on Elections to conduct intensive information drive to explain the concept and implication of the autonomy.

On February 14, the same day that President Marcos signed the decree authorizing the holding of the plebiscite on 21 February, he explained that this decision was the result of the ongoing negotiations in Tripoli.  lt was allegedly suggested that the President of the Philippines now conduct the consultations required by the Constitution with the people of the area involved and that the results be transmitted to the conference before it ends on March 3, 1977.

The newspapers announced on February 15 that the plebiscite questions were as follows:

For Regions 9 & 12: Do you approve of the merger of Regions 9 and 12 into one autonomous region?

For Palawan, Davao del Sur & South Cotabato: Do you approve the inclusion of your province as part of an autonomous region in Southern Philippines (Regions 9/or 12)?

At that time, two administrative regions were in place, Region IX and Region XII.  As explained by government, the merger would prepare the way for the implementation of the Tripoli Agreement.

A presidential directive had been issued to the Department of Public Information (DPI), the Department of Local Government and Community Development (DLGCD) and the Commission on Elections (COMELEC) to conduct intensive information drive; the local officials of Mindanaw have been briefed about the agreement, and the plebiscite questions have been announced in print. Yet, nothing except bits and pieces had been published about the Tripoli agreement.

Two days later, the President changed his mind. He postponed the plebiscite to 17 March “to give our people ample time to learn the exact nature of the autonomous region.” He reportedly found out from a quick survey he ordered on 15 February that the people have not had much time.

For more than a week afterwards, we are fed with a succession of events: the Philippines and Libya have agreed on two points; DLGCD has mass produced plebiscite primers giving emphasis to powers and functions given to regional governments contained in the autonomy law yet unsigned by the president; free debates have been declared in the 13 provinces; two plebiscite questions published for the second time on 20 February; merger issue gaining support; 600 FFF (Federation of Free Farmers) members in Davao del Sur oppose further delay in plebiscite; Muslims and Christians in the 13 provinces hail plebiscite postponement; UCCP (United Church of Christ in the Philippines) leaders back the plebiscite.

The MNLF wanted a decree, not a plebiscite, said Marcos. The President expectedly disagreed,  insisting that the plebiscite is an act of sovereignty. Once again, as if by a given signal, expressions of support for the plebiscite poured in; from MNLF Commanders, from the Commissioner of Region 12. On the side, we were told that the President planned to sign the Regional Autonomy Law.

The papers reported on 1 March complaints from southern residents, about the circulation of leaflets with misleading information.

The next day, the leaflet story was expanded: some leaflets advocating an independent security force for autonomous region; others agitating for total separation of Muslims and Christians. In Libya, there was conflict over demand to include Palawan, Davao del Sur and South Cotabato in autonomous region; the MNLF will not participate in the plebiscite.

At last, on March 5,  we are told that the leaflets were actually copies of the MNLF proposed decree.

The MNLF-proposed decree was apparently the MNLF Position Paper presented at the second round of talks. It was never discussed in the negotiations; neither was the Philippine government paper.  How it reached the public is not clear. The government said it was leaked by the MNLF. But the public was generally ignorant about its existence. Exceptions were those local officials who received their copies from the governors of the thirteen provinces.

On March 3, the papers reported the stalemate in Tripoli talks.

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

TOMORROW: MNLF Reaction

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