COMMENT: Behind MILF Feelings

They respect and highly regard him from their intimate knowledge of him.  They are friends. As a missionary in Muslim-dominated areas, as an educator, civic-politico worker, and as media man, he advocates Muslim-Christian understanding and reconciliation in words and deeds. He is among the foremost peace advocates in Mindanao.

As a scholar, Fr. Mercado has studied and knows Islam very well. MILF panel members, others   involved in the negotiation, and some top MILF officials know well the Oblate Mission, of which Fr. Mercado is a part, as well as the thrust of the Catholic and other Christian Churches in relation to Islam and the Muslims. They are a contrast to the Spanish missionaries of old.

Yet, while they respect and highly regard Fr. Mercado as a person and a friend, they frowned on his appointment as chair of the government’s negotiating panel.  Why?

A Bit of History

The Christian churches in Mindanao – Roman Catholic, Episcopalian, Philippine Independent Church, Evangelical, Methodist and other Protestant churches – have coexisted with Muslims as they respect Islam and Muslim traditions and culture. In times of man-made calamities, they were there to help Muslims evacuees.

One distinctive concern of Christian churches in Mindanao is justice and peace. They take the cudgel for the poor and the indigenous minorities against unjust policies, laws and acts of the government. They support the peace advocates and have urged Manila and MILF to settle the Mindanao conflict peacefully.

In this concern, the mosques joined the churches when the Ulama and the Christian Bishops formed the Bishops-Ulama Conference in the 1990s. They mediate but take no sides. That is the role they have maintained.

For instance, during the Pikit war of February-March 2003, Archbishop Orlando B. Quevedo, OMI, a BUC member and then president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, appealed to the President, the military and MILF Chairman Salamat Hashim to stop the fighting and negotiate peace. In whatever capacity he made the appeal, he only mediated.

The Christian churches in Mindanao are seen as neither for the government nor for the MILF. They are for peace. This must be how the MILF see the Roman Catholic Church and the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, the religious congregation to which Fr. Mercado belongs.

Let Down

What a big let down it was for the MILF leaders and negotiating panel when they learned of Afable’s relief and the naming of Fr. Mercado as chief negotiator – an appointment he was inclined to accept when formally tendered. They must have felt betrayed, belittled and the negotiation trivialized.

They and Afable have earned each other’s trust, a very important factor in surmounting the obstacles at the final stage of the negotiation. They could not believe that Afable intentionally resigned because on June 9 – just a week earlier – he expressed to them in Cotabato City his determination and eagerness to finish the negotiation.

Then they learned from “an unimpeachable source from Malacañang” that Afable was eased out through the efforts of “Secretary Jesus Dureza and Security Adviser Norberto Gonzales” – a plan “hatched … with the direct participation of a powerful religious group in the Philippines”. (luwaran.com, June 19)

From another source, MindaNews learned that Dureza had no part in ouster of Afable which was the work of Gonzales, Secretary Ronaldo Puno and the security cluster of the Cabinet. Whoever engineered Afable’s ouster trivialized the negotiation and betrayed the MILF.  So did President Arroyo for giving in to the intriguers at such a crucial stage of the negotiation.

Fr. Mercado’s inclination to accept the appointment must have been another let down for the MILF.  How can a member of the Church which has always been neutral in the conflict between the Moro Fronts and Manila take the side of the government? They must have felt belittled at the prospect of negotiating with one without cabinet rank.

Crisis Preempted

 Whatever crisis loomed Fr. Mercado preempted by deciding not to accept the chairmanship “on the basis of objections of the MILF” (MindaNews, June 20; also, INQUIRER.net, June 20).  The objections had they been unheeded could have led to failure.

Jun Mantawil, head of the MILF panel secretariat said (luwaran.com. June 17) that Fr. Mercado “does not possess the authority that a cabinet member possesses”.  Besides, negotiation is a “clear-cut state matter and a highly partisan activity that churchmen should not involve themselves in deference to the separation of Church and State in the Philippines”.

Furthermore, the appointment of Fr. Mercado “would make uncomfortable … Datuk Othman bin Abdu’ Razak, the chief [Malaysian] facilitator, [who] is of cabinet rank, being … a special adviser to the Prime Minister”.

Mantawil stressed one dire implication of Fr. Mercado’s appointment: “There is protocol in the negotiation that all the Parties, especially state actors, must follow – that choosing negotiator by either party, government or the MILF, is not absolute prerogative”.

By the “protocol” Mantawil cited, negotiators must be acceptable to both parties.  This implies consultation and the possibility that one party may refuse to negotiate if the other party insists in not removing an unacceptable negotiator from its panel.

“I’ve seen the validity of the MILF objections,” Fr. Mercado told MindaNews, adding that he had spoken with the MILF central leadership and they clarified their objections.

What could have finally prevailed upon Fr. Mercado was his having communicated with MILF chair Al Haj Murad Ebrahim where he was able to “clarify their objections.” Ebrahim had earlier written the Philippine government a letter which was “the official reaction of the MILF Central Committee on the appointment of Fr. Eliseo Mercado as new government peace panel chairman,” Iqbal said (luwaran.com, June 19).

A Greater Man

Fr. Mercado has a emerged a greater man by heeding the objections of the MILF and respecting their feeling.  He has not said it.  But he must have heeded also the concern for him of friends and fellow peace advocates who sincerely felt that he should decline the chairmanship.

Archbishop Quevedo, the Oblate Provincial Superior Fr. Ramon Bernabe, OMI, and other Oblate Fathers have not spoken.  But while they have kept their concern within their House, they must have conveyed this to Fr. Mercado.  The Congregation had a stake in the matter.

By declining, Fr. Mercado has avoided a betrayal that Afable had experienced. Even while his appointment papers were being prepared, Malacañang feeling the heat from media reports announced through Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye “that the Palace had not appointed any replacement yet”. Officially, not yet; but the President had designated Mercado. What double-talk foreshadowing backstabbing!

Fr. Mercado told MindaNews the MILF “would rather see him head an independent body that would monitor and assess the implementation of the peace agreement”. Obviously, the Palace has not made any gesture of appreciation for his willingness to serve the President.

After avoiding the “snake pit”, repack your bags to enjoy your much-deserved two-month vacation in Hawaii, Father Jun. (“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." You may e-mail your comments to [email protected]This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it )

 

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