PEACETALK: What happened to the Mindanao pace process? By Ishak V. Mastura

1.    Is zero-sum oriented and basically unilateral, insofar as it centers on a language similar to the colonial concept of “white man’s burden” in order to legitimise state action. This cognitive concept reduces the other to an inferior person, unable to face you at an equal level;

2.    Differentiates sharply between political rhetoric and practice. Time and again the rhetoric  seemed to substantiate the fact that the political intentions were good. However, social practice showed completely different patterns;

3.    Is centred on coupling continuous discussion with social and political action. Whereas the first is destined to guarantee that the critics comply with the rules of the game and continue to voice their grievances within the liberal-democratic arena, the disconnected social and political action normally aims at maximizing the interests of the dominant players and undermining the chances of protest and rebellion. Repeatedly new factual situations – always more to the disadvantage of the minority – were created by “spontaneous” local action, which had to be debated afterwards. As the debates drag on, new facts are created on the ground. The coupling of perpetual discussion and negotiation with seemingly disconnected aggressive local action created a system of diminishing returns for the Moros. In effect, the system of perpetual discussion of grievances without consequences results in a fundamental democratic disempowerment of protest (Kreuzer, P.  and Weiberg, M., “Framing Violence: Nation-and State-Building”, Peac
e Research Institute Frankfurt Reports No. 72, 2005).

If you look closely at no. 3, this precisely explains what happened to the peace process in Mindanao due to the aborted signing of the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in August 2008.

Despite significant breakthroughs in the negotiation, the peace talks was reduced to a forum for discussion of grievances by the Moro revolutionary groups with the government since in the meantime new factual situations on the ground in the form of a Supreme Court Temporary Restraining Order (now made into a pronouncement of unconstitutionality) and protests by Christian settlers in Mindanao to the MOA-AD, which facts disadvantaged the minority Moro position, erupted “spontaneously,” eventually halting the momentum of the peace talks and the effects of which are now being debated. As validated in the study, the peace process has been merely the stage for perpetual discussion and negotiation coupled with seemingly diminishing returns for the Moros. In effect, the peace talks itself has become part of the system of perpetual discussion of grievances without consequences, which results ultimately in a fundamental democratic disempowerment of protest by the minority Moros.

Basically, the problem that the peace process encountered is the majority Filipino mindset itself. As even one Filipino academic recognized “Christian and state chauvinism have minoritized the position of Moro ethnicity, creating it as the ‘other’ of the national self, an ‘othering’ based on ethnicity and religion..” As such, “… national politics emplaces the Muslim conflict as something induced by the Muslims themselves, for not wanting to integrate into the body of national politics that purports cultural and religious tolerance. In obfuscating class from Moro ethnicity, all redeemable within the nation-state’s developmental objectives.” (Tolentino, R., “Piracy and its Regulation: The Filipino’s Historical Response to Globalization”, University of the Philippines Film Institute, November 26, 2006).

Contrary to what was harped extensively in the media and even among Filipino commentators and academics, that the lack of meaningful consultation with the wider public doomed the peace process, it was really not the lack of consultation that spelled disaster but the lack of technical know how and understanding of the peace processes by the government. Institutional expertise on mediation and facilitation of peace processes is now established in international centers studying conflict resolution and yet the government failed to take lessons from this institutionalized knowledge on conflict resolution, mediation and facilitation in peace processes. Accordingly,  “while experience shows that no peace process is the same,” ‘no size fits all’ there is nevertheless an increasing standardization of peace processes.” (Mason, S., “Mediation and Facilitation in Peace Processes”, Center for Security Issues, ETH Zurich, 2007).

For example, it is widely acknowledged that mediation and negotiation typically occur between a few elite people who represent groups with divergent interests. However, since violent conflict impacts every individual in the broader society engaging the public and broader society to accept and work with a settlement negotiated by an elite is often a key challenge (Ibid). If this does not occur, however, any settlement will lack legitimacy and will find limited acceptance by the larger populations.

Having said that, it is important to recognize that “peace agreements are not democratically legitimized, thus the need for elections and institutional reform during the post peace agreement phase.” (Ibid). From the beginning, there should have been awareness as one study put it that:

“Peace agreements often form the conceptual basis for the subsequent governance structures and stipulate the specific division of power, resources, representation or autonomy that will be built into the emerging governance and institutional structures of societies. These peace agreements and interim arrangements, however, often lack democratic legitimacy, yet they are important in paving the way to these more definitive constitutional and institutional set-ups.” (Ibid)

Instead of treating the Constitution as an obstacle in the peace negotiations we can take the view put by the same study that “the creation of a constitution is a key component [in peace agreements]. Constitutions ‘define the polity, they set the rules of the relationship between the state and its citizens; they fix and reflect the social contract that underpins the functioning of an organized society.” (Ibid).  What this seems to be saying is that in order for successful implementation of a peace agreement, the minority population or minority peoples have to be accommodated in a Constitution’s political and social order on their own terms and not upon the majority dictates, as for example in the present Philippine Constitution.

The study also recognized that there seems to be a trend from long-lasting Constitutions,  to those that are more frequently amended. Often there is also a need for interim arrangements between the peace agreement and the ‘final’ constitution (Ibid). Indeed, in the Bougainville peace settlement, the Papua New Guinea constitution was specifically amended to accommodate the peace settlement with the rebel groups.

In summary, two things emerge from the debacle in the peace process. First is that the majority Filipino mindset regarding the Mindanao conflict and the conception of the Philippine state itself have to be considered in the peace process and as such, the peace process and the attendant peace talks must be treated with utmost seriousness by the Philippine government lest it becomes a mere forum for discussion of minority grievances. Secondly,  there is a need for more technical knowledge on the part of the government regarding conflict resolution, mediation and facilitation of peace processes, which in turn reinforces the first finding that in order for there to be a successful peace settlement the government must be committed and serious in resolving the conflict peacefully through negotiations and not simply dilly-dally, or use the peace talks for what Kreuzer calls the “democratic disempowerment of protest.”

The failure to resolve the long-running Mindanao conflict endangers the Philippines sliding gradually into failed state status. The Foreign Policy magazine has published for the past four years an annual list, called the Failed States Index, of the 60 weakest and most vulnerable states (so-called fragile states) in the world and the Philippines has been on that list since it began in 2005, except in 2006 when it ranked just barely outside of the list at no. 68. Mindanao itself has been labeled as “ungoverned territory” by the Pentagon’s favorite think tank, RAND Corporation, in 2007 meaning that it is an area of contested governance, particularly by the Bangsamoro people, indicating the attendant problems of a fragile state.

The problem of fragile states has become one of the most urgent problems of the world today because fragile states have become sources of regional instability. The principal characteristic of  fragile states is that the population lacks social cohesion. Political fragmentation warps incentives, encouraging short term opportunism at the expense of long-term investment. Formal governing institutions and regulations, disconnected from the way things actually work in social practice, and not having become part of the informal institutional frameworks that guide people’s behavior, command only lip service allegiance and compliance.

In these fragile states, the population is more likely to feel allegiance to a tribe, ethno-linguistic groups, region, or family clan which they and their forefathers have been closely connected than to a state with which they fail to identify with. Groups compete in capturing the state’s formal institutions for their own selfish objectives. Groups out of power view the state, or its current leaders as illegitimate and where cooperation does extend across group lines, it is usually just an alliance or convenience, as cliques of various backgrounds compete to take advantage of the general lawlessness to siphon off money from everything from construction projects to gold mines to warfare (Kaplan, S. “Fragile States” Hoover Institution Stanford University, Dec 2008-Jan 2009).  The business people who flourish are not those with the best education or the best ideas but those connected by blood or marriage or social links to the ruling clique, or those skilled at manipulating and bribing officials, while the best and brightest flee to other countries to live and work and the country barely makes any progress.

The key to helping fragile states is to emphasize institutional changes that foster more decentralization, greater integration of traditional norms into state institutions, a stronger focus on human security, and various ways of promoting accountability. In all cases, the empowerment of local groups should be made paramount, to ensure that the state has firm foundations.

According to Seth Kaplan, “states will work better if they are structured around cohesive groups –such a Kurds in Iraq, the Isaaq in Somaliland, and the Aymara in Bolivia – that can capitalize on their common institutions and group affinities. Similarly, large sprawling countries …are more likely to harness existing societal bonds and capitalize on pockets of relative cohesion if they give individual regions or large urban areas (even those with multiple groups) much greater authority to manage their own affairs. In contrast, the top-down approach typically advocated by the international community ignores local populations’ indigenous capacity for institution building – and reinforces a dependency on outsiders. Although partition is impractical in most places, where conflict has already led to the creation of an ethnically, religiously, or tribally homogenous areas, as in Somaliland, Nagorno-Karabakh, and Kosovo, redrawing the boundaries to match these divisions is far more likely to produce peace and development-oriented states than is an insistence on remixing obviously hostile peoples.” (Ibid).

If you notice the groups mentioned by Kaplan are all distinct ethnic groups within a formal state structure, who have been given local power or enjoy a measure of self-governance, whose indigenous or local institutions the state recognizes and abides by. Kurds are part of a Federal Iraq, Somaliland is a rump state of Somalia, and the Aymara are indigenous peoples, South American Indians, inhabiting the Bolivian highlands. If ever the Bangsamoro people in Mindanao are also allowed, within a territory that is predominantly Moro, their own indigenous self-governance structure that is not an imposed solution from the top but is part of an indigenous process enjoying popular legitimacy, we will see a stable Mindanao, and then building on that foundation of a stable Mindanao, we can foresee a strong an stable Philippines.” (Presented on the first day of the conference on Consolidation for Peace for Mindanao 3: Strategic Planning for Peace Post MOA-AD,  in Penang, Malaysia, on January 12 to 15. The author is the Deputy Executive Secretary at the Office of the Regional Governor in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao).