QUEZON CITY (MindaNews / 12 September) –Watching the news about remembrance ceremonies of 9/11 made me remember the impact of that day on me, personally.
Sometime in 2000, I was in Washington DC for a conference and decided to meet research directors of think tanks for my own study on ethnic conflict. I visited several, including the Brookings Institution and the United States Institute for Peace (USIP). Although established and funded by Congress, USIP is an independent, nonpartisan institution. “Its goals are to help prevent and resolve violent international conflicts, promote post-conflict stability and development, and increase conflict management capacity, tools, and intellectual capital worldwide.”
The research director I met in USIP was very interested in my proposed study on the ethnic conflict between the Bangsamoro and government. He suggested that perhaps I should consider a fellowship with the Institute. If the Board approved of my research proposal, I would be in residence in DC for ten months to do my study. If my research resulted in a publishable manuscript, the USIP would publish it.
What a great idea, thought I. I wrote up my research proposal, sent it to the USIP, and went home to the Philippines. My topic? Federalism as a political solution to the ethnic conflict in Mindanao. Months later, USIP offered me a “Jennings Randolph Program for International Peace award,” which was given to 8 to10 Senior Fellows each year “so that outstanding scholars, practitioners, policymakers, journalists, and other professionals can conduct research on peace, conflict and international security”. How could I refuse?
My fellowship was for September 2001 to June 2002. Thus, I was in DC on that fateful day, 9/11. Glued to the TV, I watched – over and over again – the passenger planes crash into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. With horror and a sense of foreboding, I watched news anchors and analysts identify the Al Qaeda as the perpetrators.
Over the coming days and weeks, I witnessed the fear building up within American society: fear of Muslims. How could anyone attack the citadels of the only superpower in the world? The war on terror obsessed the US government, searching for non-existent weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The Bush administration’s single-minded focus on rooting out the Al-Qaeda turned to South East Asia. “Balikatan“ (shoulder-to-shoulder), a longstanding bilateral exercise highlighting the partnership between the Philippines and the United States, was crafted as the US-RP cooperation to train our military in counterterrorism.
Worried about US policy towards Muslim Mindanao, I changed gear. Aghast at the lack of knowledge among policymakers with regards to the Philippines, I sought to educate any and all who would listen to me about the realities of the conflict in Mindanao. Instead of doing my original research, I spent my time with meetings and briefings on the GRP-MILF (Government of the Republic of the Philippines – Moro Islamic Liberation Front). conflict. I set meetings with the US Congress, with the State Department and Defense officers, with think tanks like Rand Corporation and the Center for Strategic and International Studies. I had to stress that it was a national problem, an ethnic conflict, not in any way connected to the Al Qaeda war on the West. That any US attempt to intervene, as they had done in Afghanistan and Iraq, would bring them to a slippery slope that could end in another Vietnam.
The President of USIP, Richard Solomon, former Ambassador to the Philippines, was very supportive of my efforts. The USIP helped me open doors and supported my roundtables on Mindanao and Islam: a video-conference with newly elected ARMM (Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao) governor Parouk Hussin and the late Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes, a roundtable with the late Senator Nene Pimentel, a panel on Muslim women. The USIP even arranged for me to be interviewed on CNN and other networks to explain the conflict between the MILF and the government. Not once did the USIP officials interfere in my mission to educate Washington DC about Mindanao.
Returning home in 2002 after my fellowship, I arranged for USIP experts on conflict resolution, peace education and on religion and peacemaking to come to the Philippines and share their knowledge with government, civil society and the academe. Their workshops, held at the Asian Institute of Management in cooperation with the Sycip Policy Center, were highly appreciated by participants.
The USIP put together a team of experts that would offer assistance for the GRP-MILF peace process – the Philippine Facilitation Project. It seems the late Ustadz Salamat Hashim, founder of the MILF, suspicious of the Philippine government, initiated the move by writing President George W. Bush to help in the peace process (January 2003). Then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, during her 2003 state visit, also requested President Bush for assistance in the peace process, if the Malaysians agreed.
Why the USIP? The US Ambassador to the Philippines at the time, Frank Ricciardone Jr., knew Dick Solomon well, and probably reached out to USIP. Unfortunately, the USIP participation was at the margins (training workshops, conferences). The Malaysian government had been facilitating the peace talks for a couple of years by 2003 and did not relish the entry of the United States. Thus, the doors to the negotiating room were closed to the USIP. Since the USIP did not have a real role in the peace talks, the State Department finally pulled the plug and discontinued funding the USIP Philippine Facilitation Project.
In 2004, Cotabato lawyer Benedicto Bacani, who headed the Notre Dame University’s Peace Center, joined the USIP as Senior Fellow. My friend Benny became the USIP’s contact person in Mindanao. By that time, I was no longer involved in any of the USIP activities.
One fateful day – and the ripples continue on and on.
(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Amina Rasul is the President of the Philippine Center for Islam and Democracy, an advocate for Mindanao and the Bangsamoro, peace, human rights, and democracy)