COMMENT: Changing Tango Partners

It takes two to tango. Of Afable, his dancing partner MILF panel chair Mohagher Iqbal swears they tango very comfortably with each other – in fact dancing so well for the coveted peace prize. Why pull him out of the dance floor? “It’s bad for the peace process,” he protests. “Trust has been [earned] over the years then a newcomer come in suddenly.  He will start from number one.” (MindaNews, June 16)

Even if his new tango partner is a Mindanao peace worker, Fr. Eliseo R. Mercado Jr., OMI, Iqbal says: “It’s still a setback.” And he sounds wary, “Regarding Fr. Mercado, we respect him and highly regard him but the job is strictly state matters.  There is separation of church and state in the Philippines.” (MindaNews, June 18)

Mindanao peace advocates are surprised by the sudden change.  They, too, view the unexpected resignation of Affable as not auguring well for the peace process that he has been deftly steering together with Iqbal through troubled waters.

Concerned Muslims, MILF panel members, Mindanao peace advocates and a foreign observer are one in calling Afable’s replacement a blunder at a time when the peace negotiation “is on its final stages”.  Can the talk with Fr. Mercado heading the GRP panel take off from where it was suspended in September 2006?

 

What’s Wrong

 

The talk broke down when the government and the MILF disagreed on the number of villages inhabited by Muslims to be added to the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, the main jurisdictional area of the Bangsamoro Juridical Entity – the political entity for the Moro Ancestral Domain.

Evidently, Afable has come to understand the Muslim sensitivity over their ancestral domain. While tugging the Manila line, he has not been insensitive to the MILF’s plea. A Malaysian official, identified only as “familiar with the peace process” said of Afable: “He has been effective in building trust with MILF leaders.  He has contributed a lot in narrowing the gap and has deep understanding of the complexity of the process.” (Philippine Daily Inquirer, June 17)

For this, he has won the trust and respect of the MILF panel and, Mary Ann Arnado, a lawyer and peace advocate, said he “enjoys the backing of the peace movements in Mindanao”.  She pleaded to the government: “Spare the GRP-MILF peace talks from this politics of survival.” (MindaNews June 16).

It must have been through his efforts that Manila, last December, agreed to grant the Muslims self-determination.  But, while hailed as “a breakthrough”, this was not enough.  The territorial question must be resolved. Could he have been convinced that more concessions could be given the MILF but Manila has been so indecisive or unresponsive that he has become frustrated?

It is not clear whether Afable had wanted to resign when he tendered his courtesy resignation as demanded by the President from all cabinet secretaries. No word had come from him. But while “not so happy with the support from the Cabinet and the Office of the President” he wanted to complete the negotiation, some sources told MindaNews

Some hawks in the Office of the President, in the cabinet, in Congress and in the military must not be happy about Afable’s tact and they made sure the President accepted his resignation but asked him to “act as adviser to the panel”. This does not bode well for his successor.

 

Reservations

 

Fr. Mercado accepted the chairmanship hoping: “I may be able to contribute to peace in Southern Philippines and Southeast Asia,” imploring God’s help.  Indeed, he will need a deluge of prayers.

The comments MindaNews (June 18) gathered from two MILF negotiators, three Muslim professionals and a Christian lawyer from Davao City showed respect and high regards for Fr. Mercado but viewed his appointment with reservation. They are provocative.

MILF’s panel chair Iqbal, in his statement quoted earlier, considers Fr. Mercado’s being a priest of the Roman Catholic Church a handicap in “the job [that] is strictly state matters,” pointing out the “separation of church and state in the Philippines”.

Lawyer Mary Ann Arnado’s worry that “the choice of a Catholic priest … could be perceived as a religious conflict when it’s not” anticipates Iqbal’s objection. Datu Michael O. Mastura, educated at Notre Dame University and a friend of Fr. Mercado and the Oblate Fathers, elucidates this.

Noting the shift of the GRP panel chairs “from cabinet man to churchman”, Mastura is “doubly concerned government outlook is churchy treatment of the peace process.  This is the height of insensitivity of the missionary thrust for over three centuries … [a] new setback in [the effort] of our more informed generation to deal with alienation of the Bangsamoro people”.     

Mastura also doubts Fr. Mercado’s effectiveness.  First, as then chair of Quick Response Team in 2000, he failed to stop the military assault against Camp Abubakar. Second, his allusion to the GRP-MNLF Final Peace Agreement of 1996 as the “North Star” in the pursuit of peace could make the GRP-MILF agreement “an appendix” to the FPA which the MILF has rejected.

Lawyer Zainudin S. Malang of Cotabato City asked: “Did Sec. Afable really want to resign because he had lost hope on how to move the peace agenda in Cabinet meetings? [This] would raise the question: what makes Fr. Jun think he can [succeed]?”

Amina Rasul, executive director of the Philippine Council for Islam and Democracy, thinks Fr. Mercado will be effective but warns that being a government outsider — not a member of the Arroyo cabinet — he will make a “good scapegoat” if anything goes wrong.  Good warning!

 

Critical Option

 

Like what Guiamel Alim, executive director of the Consortium of Bangsamoro Civil Society, is suggesting, Fr. Mercado must first believe that agreement is possible — that he can spell the difference. Then he must lay down his plans before the President, who most likely will tell him how things should be done.

This is most sensible, a critical option. The key to his success as key negotiator, especially that he is “a government outsider”, is rapport with the MILF and Manila.  His game plan should reconcile the MILF position and Manila policies. This is difficult. Afable was stuck at third base but his predecessors either did not go beyond first or did not reach it.

It appears that Afable, and Secretary Jesus Dureza before him, had more problems with Manila than the MILF. If Fr. Mercado can have Manila agree with a game plan taking off from third base and pledge to support all-out the plan, he can concentrate on softening tough MILF positions – using to full advantage their respect and high regard for him.   

However, Fr. Mercado has one handicap to overcome – how to shed off his religious missionary identity.  It is ironic that much of the 68 years of missionary work of the Oblate Fathers have benefited Muslims in Muslim areas, yet some Muslim leaders still see social projects benefiting Muslims as fronts for conversion – making no distinctions between the Spanish and Oblate as well as other missionaries.

The stalled negotiation over ancestral domain is critical.  The annexation of more than 1,000 villages demanded by the MILF is being opposed by Manila on constitutional grounds and by the Christians who are majority in many if not most of the villages. Fully supporting the Manila position, Fr. Mercado will be accused of opposing the MILF demands on religious grounds, too.

Unless Fr. Mercado can prevail over the President and the hawks around her to agree with and support his plans, he will be in the same boat that Afable and Dureza have abandoned. He needs prayers and good luck.  Manila policy makers and their policies hold the fate of the GRP-MILF peace negotiation, during and after.

Will Fr. Mercado take off from third base and score a run with the timely hit from Manila or will he start from the batting plate where he will need a homerun to score?

Will he be able to tango comfortably with Iqbal and the other MILF panel members and win the coveted peace prize?

("Comment" is Mr. Patricio P. Diaz' column for MindaViews, the opinion section of MindaNews. The Titus Brandsma Media Awards recently honored Mr. Diaz with a "Lifetime Achievement Award" for his "commitment to education and public information to Mindanawons as Journalist, Educator and Peace Advocate." You can reach him at patpdiazgsc@yahoo.com.)

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