COMMENT: Can President Aquino Deliver?

GENERAL SANTOS CITY(MindaNews/03 April) — Malaysia has reset for this month the 21st Exploratory Talks of the Philippine Government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front which had been scheduled last March 29 and 30. That will only be the second meeting between the Government and the MILF peace panels in the first ten months of the administration of President Benigno S. Aquino III. Can he deliver a final peace agreement within his term – by June 2016?

This question is elicited by facts not skepticism. Despite the promise to resume the talks in September 2010, the first official meeting of the Government and MILF panels took place in the eighth month of the Aquino administration. Right after the two Parties had formed their negotiating panels, the talks could have resumed from where it stopped on June 3, 2010 – the last meeting of the Parties under President Arroyo. The Aquino Government Panel could have just formulated outright its position relative to the MILF Draft already in place.


Instead of doing that, the Aquino Panel first wanted to change some negotiation modalities and the incumbent Malaysian facilitator.  That was a sheer waste of time; eventually the Government Peace Team had to abandon its quest.


Draft Proposals


During their 20th exploratory talks on February 9 and 10, according to the Government-MILF joint statement, “the MILF Panel officially submitted a revised draft of its proposed Comprehensive Compact”. The Government Panel “requested time to review [it] and [to] submit its own proposal”. The Government Panel must be ready with its draft proposal for the 21st round of talks.


The MILF draft must be basically the same one, if not the very same, it submitted to the Arroyo Government Panel during the 17th Exploratory Talk on January 28, 2010 entitled: MILF Final Working Draft on Comprehensive Compact a revision of the aborted Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain ostensibly in conformity to the October 14, 2008 Decision of the Supreme Court that instead of nullifying the MOA-AD said it could be reframed for further negotiation.

This may be inferred from Datu Michael O. Mastura, senior member of the MILF Panel, when he addressed a forum at the University of the Philippines last March 23. He said that “… we have reframed the MOA-AD not as ‘a patchwork of provisions” but crafted the strands contextually morphed into the Draft of the revised comprehensive compact.  Thus, by laying the MILF position (Draft proposal) on the table, now the GPH peace negotiators practically face a compelling rationale to enter into the joinder at the negotiation table”. (Emphasis supplied)


The Government Panel could do either of these two: (1) Formulate its position directly addressing the issues emanating from the MILF Draft Proposal; or (2) propose an alternative to the MILF Draft just like what Arroyo’s Seguis Panel did. At that 17th Exploratory Talk on January 28, 2010, the Government proposed the enhancement of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao instead of drafting a proposal according to the seven-point guideline they adopted on December 9, 2009.


Should the Government Panel do the first, the negotiation will focus on issues evolving from one proposition only – the MILF Draft. That will be tackling the MILF demands head-on.  Should it do the second, the negotiation will be on issues from two different propositions; that will be evading the MILF demand by offering something other than what they are asking – worse, if the offer is something they have already rejected like the enhanced ARMM. That can derail the negotiation.


However, it would not be a surprise if the Government would evade the state-sub-state form of autonomy proposed in the reframed MOA-AD. The Aquino Government peace negotiators have already intimated they have learned a lesson from the experience of the Arroyo Government – the MOA-AD debacle. They do not want an agreement that will be challenged again at the Supreme Court.  They want one that is acceptable to non-MILF local government leaders in Mindanao and Manila and all other stakeholders.


From the Horses’ Mouths


Government chief peace negotiator UP Law Dean Marvic M.V. F. Leonen, in his speech before the National Solidarity Conference for Mindanao on August 13, 2010 and before the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines a day after, noted the MILF’s proposal and appealed to the MILF to understand that:


First, “…we represent the government of Republic of the Philippines.  This includes many peoples and identities. This includes many stakeholders.”


Second, “… our actions are measured against the framework of the Constitution — a constitution which, to my mind, provides space to find a political settlement including, if necessary and acceptable to all, a process of amendment and revision. I do not see the Constitution as a problem.  I view it as a reality that we should deal with and should be considered in finding the solution.”


Government Panel Member Prof. Miriam Coronel Ferrer elaborated the statements of Leonen in her talk at the Mindanao Media Summit in Davao City on November 6, 2010. She stated the concerns common to the Government and the MILF panels, those of the Government panel alone and those of the Executive in particular.


Of the common concerns: “… This negotiation, to succeed, has to be a collaborative exercise with both parties acutely aware that they are trying to address issues that involve multiple stakeholders, separate branches and agencies of government, and deep, interrelated root causes, while earnestly bridging the gaps in history, current realities and the desired future.”


Of the Government panel’s concerns: “… not only the members of the panel are involved in this process. We have our principals to consult for our mandate. We need to be able to reach various constituencies: the grassroots and the elites, the influential both in and outside government; the opinion-makers, the decision-makers.”


And of the Executive’s concerns in particular: “… There are aspects that the Executive can do or cause to be done on its own; others that would require getting legislators on board.  These consultations with the various stakeholders are no walk in the park.  Discussions are candid and often raise concerns without ready-made answers.”


Leonen’s and Ferrer’s statements imply their preemptive approach to the negotiation.


The Government will negotiate an agreement that will satisfy not only the MILF but also all the stakeholders – in government, outside government and the non-MILF which must include the Moro traditional political leaders and the Moro National Liberation Front.


This demands that before resuming the talks the Government Panel has to do extensive and intensive consultations with all stakeholders; and do the same after each round of talks before going to the next round. In fact consultations have already been done. Their positions will hew on what the stakeholders’ concerns.


This means that the merits of the MILF demand must be balanced with the concerns, interests and biases of all stakeholders to insure that the agreement will be acceptable to all and will not be questioned at the Supreme Court.


This preemptive approach is not without justification. Leonen’s suggestion to amend the Constitution if necessary immediately drew flaks from members of Congress and media so that Malacanang had to clarify that amending the Constitution was not the priority of President Aquino and that idea was Leonen’s alone. The Indigenous Peoples, despite their having a representative in the Government Panel, want assurance for their right to their ancestral domain. The business sector wants to be represented in the negotiation.


This preemptive approach has “pluses” and “minuses”.

Historical Antagonism

On the “plus” side knowing the views of all stakeholders will guide the panels, the Government’s in particular, in negotiating an agreement acceptable to all. On the “minus” side, will an agreement acceptable to all properly and effectively solve the Bangsamoro problem?


Historically, the Moros and the non-Moros — Christian settlers, big landholders and agro-industrial corporations — in Mindanao are antagonistic to each other. The non-Moros’ views of the Bangsamoro problem are loaded with biases, prejudices, self-interest and wrong understanding. For instance, they dismiss as “rubbish” the priority right claim of the Moros over lands and other natural resources in Mindanao. Their views negate the ancestral domain aspect of the MILF Draft Proposal.


The grim prospect is this: An agreement deemed acceptable to all stakeholders may not be acceptable to the MILF. To reach an agreement needs what Ferrer called “earnestly bridging the gaps in history, current realities and the desired future”. The bridging would be difficult in an atmosphere of antagonism. That can end in “no peace agreement” should the gaps prove unbridgeable.


The main issue in the ancestral domain aspect of the negotiation is the historical injustice suffered by the Moros due to unjust laws and policies. This is at the core of the political settlement being sought by the MILF. The Leonen-led Government negotiators can tackle this issue free of bias, prejudice and self-interest. Setting aside the negative views of the non-Moro stakeholders, they and the MILF counterparts can “bridge the gaps”.


Riding on President Aquino’s political capital, they can explain to all stakeholders the soundness of the “bridge”. The Arroyo and MILF peace negotiators were able to bridge the gap. But, unfortunately, for her lack of political capital, President Arroyo and her peace team were unable to explain the soundness of the bridge – the MOA-AD.


Constitutional Question


On the “plus” side, Leonen’s view that the present Constitution “provides space to find a political settlement” and it may be amended or revised “if necessary” is encouraging. On the “minus” side, the amendment or revision will be done only “if … acceptable to all”.


On the “plus” side, he does “not see the Constitution as a problem”. On the “minus” side, the problem lies on those who do not accept the Constitution – impliedly including the MILF.


What is that “reality” to be “dealt with” and to be “considered in finding the solution”? I think it is this: while the Constitution “provides space to find a political settlement”, it has become an obstacle because many oppose its amendment or revision to accommodate the “political settlement” and the MILF has rejected it as a “term of reference” in the negotiation. Leonen is challenging all – including the MILF — to be open-minded in reference to the Constitution.


What is the political settlement the MILF has been demanding? As contained in the reframed MOA-AD, the MILF wants the Moro ancestral domain defined for the Moros to govern as a “sub-state” of the Republic of the Philippines. To the non-MILF leaders this is a violation of the territorial integrity and national sovereignty of the Philippines as defined in the present Constitution and existing laws.


The opposition is correct. Restricted to the provisions of territorial integrity and national sovereignty in the present Constitution the political settlement being demanded by the MILF is unconstitutional; but within the flexible principles of territorial integrity and national sovereignty it is not – hence, the necessity of amending the 1987 Constitution.


But the amendment is also opposed. To the opposition the political settlement being sought will mean the dismemberment of the Republic; once granted the sub-state status, the Moro ancestral domain can secede since it has all the essential elements of the state. This perception is a potent obstacle to the solution of the Bangsamoro problem. This can prevent President Aquino from delivering.


The MILF has agreed to have the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao as the core area of its ancestral domain. In addition, the MILF is demanding a two-stage annexation of geographical areas contiguous to ARMM. In each stage, the residents of the areas will decide in a plebiscite whether to ratify or reject their inclusion in Bangsamoro sub-state in accordance with the Constitution.


During the negotiation of the MOA-AD, the MILF at first objected to the plebiscite since it did not recognize the Constitution. Later, it relented; it did not want the Philippine Government to violate its Constitution. It can follow its Constitution as long as it delivers to MILF the agreed territorial expansion. The implication is disturbing to the non-MILF: the MILF will not recognize the results of the plebiscite.


Back to the Question

Will President Aquino be able to deliver a peace agreement during his term?


It depends on how his peace team will handle the issues at the negotiation table and override objections to the agreement forged. It took the Arroyo peace team almost five years to negotiate the MOA-AD.  All the efforts went puff when the team and President Arroyo herself were unable to defend the agreement against the objecting stakeholders and in the Supreme Court.


No agreement might materialize at the negotiation table if the Government panel would be most pre-occupied with the concerns of the stakeholders and negotiate to satisfy their concerns lest they would block any agreement not to their satisfaction.  The primary objective of the agreement should be to rectify the historical wrongs and injustice against the Moros; otherwise, the Bangsamoro problem will not be solved.


It also depends on how the Government and MILF negotiators would explore that “space” the Constitution “provides … to find a political settlement”. Will the MILF reconsider its rejection of the Constitution? Section 3 of Article II of the “MILF Final Working Draft on Comprehensive Compact” – the reframed MOA-AD – is an encouraging indicator. To quote:


“Each Party recognizes that the Constitution of the Philippines should cover a completely new document agreed in the light of an option for free association of state or union in the context of this Comprehensive Compact to wit: [Sub-sections a, b and c as the matters to be covered ].”

This provision in the MILF Draft Proposal shows that the MILF has seen that space in the 1987 Constitution Leonen has referred to.


Away from the negotiation table, the Government peace team has to convince the anti-MOA-AD leaders in Congress and in the local governments in Mindanao and the opinion makers in the national media to view the political settlement demanded by the MILF with open minds in relation to the Constitution – seeing not its restrictions but its flexibility.


There are a lot of formidable obstacles to overcome for President Aquino to deliver a peace agreement within his term. The five years left are not reassuring — considering that nothing substantial was done in the first ten months. Has the Aquino Government formulated its peace draft proposal?


Secretary Teresita Quintos-Deles has said that the Moro problem will be solved within Aquino’s term – not to be passed on to the next president. Good! But until we see an encouraging progress of the negotiation, the assurance is mere media hype.


When the Parties meet this month, we may have an idea if President Aquino can deliver.


(“Comment” is Mr. Patricio P. Diaz’ column for MindaViews, the opinion section of MindaNews. Mr. Diaz is the recipient of a “Lifetime Achievement Award” from the Titus Brandsma for his “commitment to education and public information to Mindanawons as Journalist, Educator and Peace Advocate.” He was conferred the 1st Agong Awards for Journalism by the Mindanao Media Forum in November 2010. You may e-mail your comments to