Leonen meets with Pinol, Ilaga leaders

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/30 August)  –  A new group called “Christian Convergence” met behind closed door for  three hours Monday with government peace panel chair Marvic Leonen, expressing their support for the peace talks between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front but opposing “the idea of a sub-state” and the expansion of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.

“Comforting and reassuring,” former North Cotabato Vice Governor Emmanuel Pinol later said of  the consultation at the Ballroom 3 of the Marco Polo hotel that started at 5 p.m. and ended at 8:08 p.m.

On behalf of the group, Pinol spoke for 20 minutes, aided by a Powerpoint Presentation titled “Peace in Mindanao.. a new paradigm” and summed up to reporters his group’s basic points: “We support the President in his search for peace in Mindanao but we oppose the idea of a sub-state and we oppose the expansion of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).”

Pinol described “Christian Convergence” as a “loose group of Christian leaders representing business, civic and some working in government. A few claimed they represented the Christian Liberation Army and the Ilaga group.”

The Ilaga (rat in Cebuano) was an armed group set up by politicians in the 1970s purportedly to defend their communities against armed Moro groups but were also accused of several human rights violations then. It resurfaces every now and then and last resurfaced in August 2008 through a press conference days after the aborted signing of the already initialed Government-MILF  Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD) sparked clashes between government and the MILF.

Pinol said he is neither the leader nor the spokesperson of the “Christian Convergence” but is “just another stakeholder.”

But he acknowledged he was “tasked to present a common position and submitted recommendations.”

Those who attended the forum were mostly supporters of Pinol In North Cotabato, where he served as governor from 1998 to 2007 and vice governor from 2007 to 2010, and from his hometown in M’lang and Magpet, where his brothers are mayors. Also present was Anthony Dequina, former mayor of Midsayap town and former North Cotabato representative.

Different stakedholders, different set-up

Asked why it was held behind closed door, Leonen told reporters: “This is the turn of this group to be able to express to me what their sentiments are. And they thought it was better that it be done not with the media presence so that I can listen to them in a no holds barred manner, the same way I held meetings with the mayors of  Maguindano. Also that I am willing to listen to some NGOs, without the media presence, about their sentiments on the (peace) process. Kasi pag nandyan yang media, everything that they say will be public position but some positions may be

Earlier that afternoon, Leonen met with commanders of the Eastern Mindanao Command which personal to them..” has jurisdiction over most of the conflict-areas involving the GPH-MILF. The Command’s base is Davao City.

He said he gave the military a briefing on the KL talks  and was proceeding the next day to Cotabato City to meet with members of the Coordinating Committee on the Cessation of Hostilities (CCCH) and would later meet with civil society representatives.

He said he would also speak before the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines on September 2, the ARMM governors on September 7 and the National Solidarity Conference on Mindanao on September 8.

“Different kinds of forums with different stakeholders require different set up. In this case, the group wanted to meet with me and express their stories. Well, not necessarily for me to agree on but so that I have a sense of what they are feeling at the moment considering what has happened in KL,” he said.

Leonen explained there was nothing secret about Sunday’s closed door forum. “They wanted a level of intimacy so that they can be able to express what they really felt and I think that is good.”

“Hindi porke this group went up against the MOA-AD (the ill-fated 2008 Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain of the government and MILF) hindi ko na sila kakausapin” (Just because they went up against the MOA-AD does not mean I should not talk to them,” the former dean of the UP College of Law said.

“I know what their positions are,” he said, but added: “what I discovered here is that there can be a lot of common ground among different stakeholders in Mindanao… even with this group.”

He cited development as one of the common ground. “Development is very important. And I think at the end of the day, they are looking at a future that is more tolerant of each other, that regardless of your religion or your identity, that they are Mindanawons and they know that people need to live side by side with each other. They want conditions of peace. So magandang starting point ito. And Of course they have different approaches… different from the MILF, different from civil society but if you have a common ground like that – a dream of Mindanao where people can live side by side without any fear of reprisal or any suspicion with respect to each other…”

Group’s proposal

Pinol said they are also asking government to “veer away from the former mindset of waiting for a peace agreement before improving the lives of the people.”

“We asked the peace panel chairman tonight to convince government na ipagsabay yung human development at saka yung peace process so that the people will not be suffering while negotiators are talking. Look at what happened. Na-delay na naman ang peace talks. Right now gutom ang mga tao. We recommended immediate relief,  rehabilitation.. People in conflict- affected areas especially now na nagbabaha ang Ligawasan Marsh. We proposed some programs including our challenge to the government to invite the country’s Top 50 corporations to adopt 50  poorest barangays in the conflict-affected areas under the Village of  Peace program, to build schools health centers and water systems and internet connections.”

Reminded that he had proposed this “Top 50” project 11 years ago after then President Joseph Estrada launched his all-out war against the MILF, “ Pinol replied, “we’re suggesting it again because it was not acted upon and we hope that this time around the President will be able to realize this.”

The government’s proposal actually already includes the group’s recommendation. The government panel proposed a “three for one solution to one problem” involving three components: “massive economic development, political settlement with the4 MILF and cultural-historical acknowledgment.”

No copy of the government’s 20-page proposal has been released, only the two-page summary titled, “eleven characteristics of the government proposal.”
But the partnership government is offering to the MILF can be gleaned from government peace panel member Miriam Coronel-Ferrer’s August 29 opinion piece, “A comprehensive package for autonomy.”
Ferrer said the President pledged support to a “roster of development projects that will employ multiple delivery systems, including the appointed ARMM government, LGUs (local government units) and the national line agencies.”

“To the MILF, the GPH offers a partnership in the form of the proposed Joint Coordinating Committee on Development (JCCD) that will identify and implement socioeconomic projects complementary to the development plan for the region. The JCCD shall be co-chaired by the GPH and the Bangsamoro Development Agency.”

The BDA was set up following the June 22 Agreement on Peace signed by the government and MILF peace panels on June 22, 2001 in Tripoli, Libya. It is the agency that “shall determine, lead and manage rehabilitation and development projects in conflict affected areas, except when public funds are involved, in which case Government procedures and rules will be observed.”

Pinol said the invitation to the forum was extended to  “Central Mindanao (Southwestern Mindanao) leaders.”

The region comprises the provinces of North Cotabato, South Cotabato, Sarangani and Sultan Kudarat and the cities of General Santos, Koronadal, Tacurong, Kidapawan and Cotabato.

Only Sarangani Governor Miguel Dominguez showed up among the region’s leaders but left immediately after Leonen’s 50-minute speech.

Sarangani Rep. Manny Pacquiao, General Santos City Mayor Darlene Antonino-Custodio; South Cotabato  Governor Arthur Pingoy, North Cotabato Governor Emmylou Talino-Mendoza and their congressional representatives were not present.  (Carolyn O. Arguillas/MindaNews)