CRUCIBLE: Moro sandcastle by Julkipli Wadi

Remarks delivered during the forum “Land: Core Issue of the GRP-MILF Peace Process, at Bulwagang Salam, Asian Center, University of the Philippines Diliman, February 9, 2011.

Today’s renewal of peace talks between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front MILF) augurs well not only for the people of Mindanao but for the Filipino nation in general. Certainly, the success of the peace process would mean development for the whole country. After four decades of managing – simply managing not resolving – the Mindanao conflict, who suffered most are not only the people of Mindanao particularly those in Muslim areas: it is also the country, the Philippines as a whole. A country that was second to Japan in the ‘50s and ‘60s in terms of development but became the laggard in Asia Pacific in subsequent years needed much assistance not in terms of the usual foreign assistance and investment from other countries. It is “assistance” for the nation to fully see itself.

If the government is hardly able to put the Philippines’ house in order, at least it could do the same in Muslim Mindanao – view the crucible of longstanding ferment and disenchantment of a persistent Moro insurgency and struggle for self-determination as critical factor as to why the Philippines nose-dived into the becoming “the sick man of Asia.” An analogy by a diplomat few years ago was apt in describing the Mindanao conflict as an anchor that is deeply stuck up in the sand hindering the Philippine Ship to sail as fast like her Southeast Asian neighbors. Obviously, who suffered most are Muslim areas where all the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) provinces are at the tail end of development as shown by practically all major indicators of the Human Development Index, the Philippine Human Development Reports and many others.

If peace reigns in the south, budget allotment for war and counterinsurgency and budget that has become a source of pestering corruption in the military could be substantially reduced or thwarted and be properly utilized to solve more pressing problems, and more importantly, can be allocated to address fundamental requirements of economic development, education, health service, infrastructure, and so on. This is the main reason why, despite the seemingly small momentum in the peace front with the just started peace talks, still, we believe, the peace process must move forward, and hopefully, will succeed this time.

For the past 37 years of peace making particularly since 1975 when the Mindanao peace process started, the Moro areas have been molded and remolded into seemingly coherent but failed entity in heretofore unstable, shifting sand.  Apart from evolving from such territorial aggregate or geographical space like “Mindanao and Sulu” and “Moro Province” in the American period; in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, the aggregate became “Minsupala” (representing Mindanao, Basilan, Sulu and Palawan). When the MNLF’s territorial claim gained some form even inchoately, the new territorial space became “Bangsamoro Republic”, and later, MILF’s “Bangsamoro Homeland.”

Meantime, the Philippine government, as it obviously couldn’t use with fancy such political/territorial labels it recognized though the many past agreements, tried to come up with its own ranging from quasi administrative offices to political/regional units (starting with Southern Philippines Development Administration (1975), Autonomous Government in Region IX and XII (1977), Ministry of Muslim Affairs (1981), Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) (1989), Mindanao Economic Development Council MEDCO (1992), Southern Philippine Council for Peace and Development (SPCPD) (1996), Bangsamoro People’s Regional Autonomous Government (1999), Maglanco-Socsargen Council (1999), Expanded ARMM (2001), and Bangsamoro Juridical Entity BJE (2008). These nine (9) institutions had been created except the three (3) which including the BJE had not shown any light especially the latter as it was botched off together with the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MoA-AD).

All these dramatize the essentially elusive lebensraum or “living space” of Moro areas, as if it is cursed to suffer – to be molded and remolded – almost endlessly in a country whose peace process and its notion of peace is more adjunct to process than otherwise. We are pretty sure the renewed peace talks in Kuala Lumpur today will raise again another rubric, another label like the idea of a sub-state that would add into the list we mentioned. At this time, we don’t want to pre-empt the negotiators what their notion of sub-state is. What is certain is that the notion of sub-state would possibly surface as part of the reframing of MoA-AD and BJE to something that is acceptable to both parties after it was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. If they won’t do the reframing, they can probably come up with new talking points or new thrust of negotiations; that is, if there will be a “new” and interesting thrust of peace by the Pnoy Administration. We’ll not theorize what this new thrust would be; let’s listen to the peace panels when they arrive from Kuala Lumpur.

For our interest, the critical question is: why have we reached this point engaging in chronic peace process by molding and remolding in almost endless pursuit the “political space” of Moro areas with/in seemingly shifting sand?

The issue of land and ancestral domain, both territorial and marine areas of the Moros, is the heart, of course, of the Mindanao conflict. Of all resources and causes of the Moro struggle, land is agreeably the most tangible. And many studies have already shown (including the book we are launching today) that the Moro lebensraum has been continuously encroached upon, divided and sub-divided politically, economically, ecclesiastically, and demographically for more than a century. Hence, the call by the Moro fronts to recover or, at least, to secure and to protect their remaining “space” has never been as justified. The history of many nations, their history and dignity has always been determined by how much “space” they have. Certainly, the Moros couldn’t accept to become squatters in their own land or to squat pitifully in other areas as in many slums of Muslim community in Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao and Sabah in Malaysia and so on. Fine, if there are still available spaces for them to squat on given the fact that in Metro Manila alone practically all remaining crevices are already “occupied” which is symptomatic of State’s failure in putting its “house in order.”

But let me caution some people when we say the centrality of land in Moro issue; it does not mean the Moro problem is simply an agrarian question or simply framed by the rubric called ancestral domain. As the heart cannot function without other vital organs, certainly addressing the land and ancestral domain claim cannot be divorced from equally important and critical issues like self-determination, political and historical rights, sovereignty, political system, Islamic law, justice, freedom, economic development, and so on.

Given the multi-facetedness of the Moro issue and what has been the cyclical and repetitive peace process as a critical factor in the Philippine’s nose-diving into the laggard or backyard of Southeast Asia – in fact, according to some reports, the Philippines has already come second to Bangladesh in terms of poverty level – what is really needed is a realization, a very serious one, that the Philippine government is already incapable of attending to the many problems besetting the country;  it now needs, more than ever, to do basic division of labor (if it’s not yet ready to “divide the house”). That is, to allow the Moros to govern themselves according to their own laws and tradition with high index of power, freedom and resources not in a way to destroy “Philippine sovereignty and the territorial integrity” of the State but to in fact help the Philippines stand up again so that the government would be able to concentrate on the ruling and governing of other parts of the country without being pulled down by the Mindanao conflict.

The premise is clear and simple: if the government is hardly able to address the basic problems among the major populace of the country, how can it solve the Mindanao conflict and address seriously the concerns of Muslims in the south? If the above proposal is done, then both the Philippines and the Moro community would grow simultaneously. It’s unlike the perpetual remolding of the Moro’s sandcastle through endless peace process, the overall effect of which only throws farther the Philippines into the laggard of Asia.

(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Julkipli Wadi is Associate Professor of Islamic Studies, University of the Philippines Diliman.)