SPECIAL REPORT (1); What’s the fuss over a P5-M investment for peace?

1st of three parts

COTABAO CITY (Mindanews/07 November)  — A P5 million check the Philippine government gave the Moro Islamic Liberation Front for the Bangsamoro Leadership and Management Institute (BLMI) in August became headline news two months later —  specifically a week after the October 18 clash between the military and the MILF in Al-Barka, Basilan –- but with a spin: that the check was given by President Aquino to MILF chair Al Haj Murad Ebrahim in Japan; that the amount “may have been used” or “might be used” by the MILF to buy guns and ammunition that would be used  against the military; and that the amount was not P5 million but P5 billion.

It began with what government peace panel chair Marvic Leonen described as a “malicious text message” that the P5 million was allegedly used by the MILF to buy guns and ammunition.

BLMI TRAINING CENTER. The two-story training center of the Bangsamoro Leadership and Management Institute (BLMI) under construction in Simuay Sultan Kudarat, Maguindanao, as of Nov. 5, 2011. The building's construction is funded under the Grassroots Human Security Projects of the Japanese Embassy. The BLMI has been in the hot seat recently because of the government check worth P5 million given to the MILF for the BLMI, an institution intended for peaceful endeavors. MindaNews photo by Toto Lozano The text message from unnamed sources spread and became the basis for news reports and commentaries in Metro Manila. The reports said Malacanang “confirmed” it gave P5 million, like it were a secret now out in the open when that amount, intended for the BLMI,  was in the first part of Leonen’s opening statement in the peace talks in Kuala Lumpur on August 22 and the opening lines of his August 23 closing statement. Both statements were posted on the website of the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (OPAPP)  and dispatched by e-mail to media entities.

Leonen also mentioned that at the Philippine Embassy in Kuala Lumpur afternoon of August 23, during a press conference streamed live to accommodate questions from the press corps in Malacanang.

Context behind text

The “malicious text message” on October 26 came two days after the President rejected calls for an “all-out war” in response to the alleged attack of the MILF in Al-barka, Basilan on October 18 that left 19 soldiers dead and 14 others injured. The MILF countered it was the military that attacked them, killing five of their guerillas and injuring three. At least 8,000 villagers were displaced.

On the same day the President rejected the “all-out war” option, text messages spread in military camps agitating soldiers to rise against the President’s decision. Coup plots, the media in Metro Manila reported.

President Aquino had ruled out “all-out war” because it is “indiscriminate and borne out of anger”

“All-out justice is sober and fair; it is based on the rule of law, and leads to lasting peace,” he said.

“We are not interested in knee-jerk reactions that will jeopardize our efforts to address the roots of conflict in the region,’ he added.

Against this backdrop of ‘no to all-out war,” alleged coup plots,  the video images and still photos  of soldiers’ caskets transported to their respective provinces, the air strikes in Payao, Zamboanga Sibugay  allegedly against the MILF, came the reports on the P5 million fund

2006 agreement

The Philippine Star’s headline on October 27 screamed: “Palace says P-Noy gave P5M to MILF,”  the Daily Tribune’s front page story said “Noy blames GMA for P5M MILF gift” and the Philippine Daily Inquirer’s story on the inside pages said, “Palace seeks accounting of P5M it gave to MILF.”

The BLMI is a product of an agreement of the government and MILF peace panels as early as February 2006.

For majority of the media in Metro Manila, it was apparently the first time they heard of the BLMI. But reading and listening to the reports, few cared to seek explanation on what this institute was all about.

Without explaining to the public what money or the BLMI was for, a major television network quickly launched a “text us” survey among its viewers: “Sang-ayon ba kayo sa pagbigay ng Pangulo ng pera ng bayan sa MILF?” (Do you agree with President Aquino’s giving public funds to the MILF?” ABS-CBN’s TV Patrol asked.

The result? Ninety per cent said no.

After announcing the poll results, its newscasters gave their respective comments, one of them saying it would have been best had the P5 million be given “sa atin” (to us)  “para mapa-rolyo pa natin” (so we can roll it over). The newscaster may not have meant “sa atin” as the program or the station but “us” in the sense of “the majority.”

In Davao City on November 4, a reporter for the rival TV network, GMA, asked Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin at the press conference in the Eastern Mindanao Command: “may P5 million budget daw para sa MILF. Makatarungan lang ba ito…” (there is allegedly a P5 million budget for the MILF. Is this just), the reporter asked, adding that some people have expressed fears the money would be used for weapons that would be used against the military.

Gazmin cut short the reporter’s question, quickly explaining the money is for the training institute of the Bangsamoro.

The most sober question about the P5 million fund came from the parade grounds minutes later, when soldiers were urged to ask Gazmin questions.

Chief M/Sgt Rudy Esparas sought clarification: “Ito pong tungkol sa P5 million na allegedly binigay sa Bangsamoro people, hindi po gaano maintindihan Sir ng kasundaluhan natin, Sir?”  (Sir, the soldiers don’t understand much this P5 million allegedly given to the Bangsmoro people, Sir?),.

Gazmin explained it is in fulfillment of an agreement made by government years ago, that it will not go to the MILF but to the Bangsamoro leadership training institute, to train the youth to become good leaders. “Hindi ito napunta sa MILF para pambili ng MILF ng bala para ipanlababn sa atin. Hindi tama yun.” (This did not go to the MILF for the MILF to buy bullets to fight us. That is not right).

Amina Rasul, President of the Philippine Center for Islam and Democracy and Irene Santiago, chair of the Mindanao Commission on Women, wonder why the fuss, hysteria over an investment for peace.

“It wasn’t for sharpshooting or military strategy.  So what’s the fuss all about?” Rasul asked.

For  Santiago, “all this hysteria around the P5 million check for BMLI will not be dissipated unless it is placed within the context of peace and how peace is achieved.”  (Carolyn O. Arguillas/MindaNews)

Tomorrow: “Why are we crying foul over five million pesos?”