Q and A with GPH peace panel chair (now Justice) Marvic Leonen: “It will not be unconstitutional”

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/24 November) –  Newly-appointed Supreme Court Justice Mario Victor “Marvic” Leonen will inhibit from deliberations if the GPH-MILF Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro (FAB) or the Executive Order creating the Transition Commission whose negotiations he steered towards the signing of the FAB on October 15, will be questioned  at the Supreme Court.

“I will inhibit,” Leonen, then government peace panel (GPH) chair, told MindaNews at the Palace of the Golden Horses hotel in Kuala Lumpur on November 16, during a break from the negotiations.  Leonen, however, maintained he is confident the FAB or the EO will pass the test of constitutionality.

Another door has opened for GPH peace panel chair Marvic Leonen, the new Associate Justice of the Supreme Court. MindaNews file photo by Carolyn O. Arguillas

Leonen’s appointment drew mixed reactions from the Bangsamoro themselves. MILF peace panel chair Mohagher Iqbal, who was still out of the country when the announcement was made, welcomed the appointment with a text message filled with exclamation points. “We welcome the appointment! My sincerest congratulations! He deserves it.”

Guiamel Alim of the Consortium of Bangsamoro Civil Society said he hopes Leonen “would  not completely detach from the peace process. But he would go in history as champion for peace if  he is in the peace talks through thick and thin to the end. After all , there is already a glimpse of light at the end of the tunnel?”

Laisa Alamia, director of the Commission on Human Rights in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) commended Leonen’s appointment. “He has successfully steered the peace process forward He has a deep understanding and appreciation of the Moro context,  a man of probity and integrity, and is one of the main factors were have reached this far in the Bangsmaoro question.”

MindaNews’ Carolyn O. Arguillas interviewed Leonen in Kuala Lumpur on November 16, on the scenarios in the peace talks with the MILF should he be appointed to the Supreme Court the following week.


Q: Where are we now?
A: Na-clarify yung common points and differences. Parties can therefore know what the decision points are on the annexes.

Q: But there seems to be a problem on wealth-sharing?
A: Sanay na ako dyan. May problema, may solusyon. All you need is get more mandate from each of the principals.

Q: So have you summoned all the angels and saints?
A: No need

Q: You sound so confident.
A: Because both sides are on problem-solving mode. They’ve set a mutual deadline. Things will  find a way and the hard lines are not really hard lines unlike two years ago when the lines were really very difficult. We’re past the major issues. These are adjustments sa details.

Q: People are asking what happens if you get appointed? They want to know if you are going to stay on as panel chair?
A: No. It’s a different department of government. Besides, GPH it has aa minimum of 14 negotiators – five panel members and the technical working groups (TWGs). There were five of us plus two alternates from July 2010. Government is confident that nobody is indispensable, not even the chair. Di naman nagbabago yung principles, hindi naman nagbabago yung principals and more importantly, there is already a Framework Agreement.

Q: So this could really be your last as panel chair?
A: (Smiles)

Q: Are you gonna be happy there?
A: Supreme Court?

Q: What if you are not named?
A:  I was named by the JBC (Judicial and Bar Council)

Q: What if?
A: Eh di tuloy ako dito

Q: Where will you go after?
A: Babalik ako sa UP to teach

Q: So who will you recommend to take over your post?
A: (off the record)

Q: When you recommend, the President will
A: kanyang panel ito. I can only recommend. Tapos may vacancy pang isa.

Q: So who will be the new panel member?
A: Not yet pa sure pero may mga recommendees. But it’s not really certain until the announcement.

Q: Okay, you are identified with the Framework Agreement. One of the first questions that will be asked if you are named Justice is why leave it when it’s not yet done?
A: You have to look at the priorities. Una, can there be another chair? Replaceable ba ako? And the answer there is yes. Are we already set for the annexes? The answer is yes. Meron nang framework  and progessing na yung drafts.

Q: Masyado kang optimistic sa progressing drafts mo.
A: Kelan ba ako nagging pessimistic? (laughs)

Q: Could it be because .. but you would know what’s happening there, right?
A: Alam ko but I choose to see it from the point of view that there are more consensus points than differences. Both parties have publicly and officially committed to finish by the end of the year. And the ground is stable and getting quiet and in fact the number of conflicts has been reduced, kahit yung non-MILF-GPH, yung mga rido. Di ba kumonti?  Plus there’s a lot of goodwill plus spirit of volunteerism – homemade banners, peace advocates….  On the other hand… at heart abogado ako. At heart abogado ako. Yan yung aking profession. Nahila lang ako dito sa negotiaton

Q: Kasi nagpahila ka rin naman.
A: And naisip ko na maka-contribute. Di ko akalain it can really leap this way.

Q: I do remember that in April last year
A: Sabi ko one year lang ako

Q:  In April last year, you said something like after you presented the proposal to the President, he said ‘this will be our legacy.’
A: This will be his legacy and also the legacy of  (Al Haj) Murad (Ebrahim),  the leadership of Murad.

Q: What did the negotiations teach you?
A: That there is still hope to do the right thing and doing the right thing can inspire others. Kaya ko nasabi yan, kasi malaking bagay yung kay PNoy na hindi lang perception kundi the reality that he is following as far as he could, the straight path. So that kind of trust can, siguro yung concept ng the mere leadership and good governance and what it can do, that things that were seemingly closed suddenly became open, the minds that were closed suddenly opened and that people reconsidered their positions

Q:  I mean you, personally.
A: It taught me a lot of skills in dealing with different types of people like (MILF senior peace panel member Datu Michael) Mastura (laughs). It enhanced (my) ability to be able to bring a point through simply by listening to their perspectives. If you listen very closely, meron kang makikitang consensus.

GPH peace panel chair Marvic Leonen at the lobby café of the Palace of the Golden Horses hotel in Kuala Lumpur on November 16. It was his last trip to Kuala Lumpur as peace panel chair. President Aquino named him Associate Justice of the Supreme Court five days after this interview. MindaNews photo by Carolyn O. Arguillas

Q:  You were more identified with the Lumads (indigenous peoples) before you were named GPH peace panel chair two years ago.
A:  Yes.  Two years. I had to do my research. I had to learn very quickly. The history of this entire struggle, the context with the MNLF, the context with the MILF.  Binasa ko si Salah Jubair (pseudonym of MILF peace panel chair Iqbal). Then whatever morsel of information  I could find on (MILF chair Al Haj) Murad (Ebrahim). I engaged all intelligence agencies to get a clearer picture of who we are engaging with, I studied Islam and understood its basic tenets and I looked at al the materials dito sa negotiations starting from the first day .

Q: Anong picture mo noon? You come from the north di ba? When you were growing up, what  was the Moro like for you?
A:  I understood that there was a different culture deserving of autonomy and self governance. Kasi sa Cordillera din, autonomy yung calls dati. Tapos my father worked very closely with the Igorot kaya I understood about differences in culture

Q: So wala ka nung bias usually associated
A: Wala. I don’t believe that it was there. Kasi  maraming sinasabi tungkol the Igorots but I knew different people who were from that ethnicity. I grew up in that environment

Q: So let’s fast forward. Nov. 22 your name or even before that, you become Associate Justice. If the EO is issued and it is questioned before the Supreme Court, will you inhibit?

A: I will inhibit. But I am fairly confident that a lot of the lawyers within the peace process especially the panel and OPAPP, understand the legal grounding of the Framework Agreement. As a matter of fact, ngayon, maraming nagsasalita about the Framework Agreement (like GPH lawyers) Joe Lorena, Jo Wahab, Hamid Barra.

Q: What if history will repeat itself? Kasi it happened in 1996 na within two years dapat, na-pass yung law that would have expanded the ARMM pero hindi natuloy yun. It took Congress so long that’s also why (MNLF chair Nur) Misuari sat there (after his three-year term as ARMM Governor) on holdover capacity. Paano kung ganon uli ang mangyari? May precedent na and it could really happen again.
A:  Una siempre, sasabihin ko that will not happen that way considering the people in government are different, the actuations now of government are very different from the actuations of government after the final peace agreement with the MNLF. Nothing is done unilaterally now,  everything is done with consultations with the partner in the Framework Agreement. Second, it’s no longer only the responsibility of the panel that negotiated the agreement. Most especially it is not only the responsibility of the chair, kasi once the agreement is there, the Framework Agreement and the annexes, the implementation is going to be public. It’s government and the MILF. From the publication of the Framework Agreement, it became public, it was owned by the public. Tapos the responsibility of the negotiating groups are simply to develop enough foresight to be able to put in provisions to assist in the implementation after the agreement is signed. But it is not the responsibility to deal with learnings from the implementation. Sa experience of the implementors, the different points of view that will come out and it is that spirit of goodwill in a peace agreement that will build on

Q:  But goodwill is not enough. What if in the next Congress, government can’t muster enough of the required number of votes?
A: Kasi it’s not only the responsibility of the President but also the public response to the Framework Agreement.  Unexpectedly, the response to the Framework Agreement is overwhelmingly in favor of the approach. Iqbal said in his opening statement that this is an “amazing agreement,” that it is an agreement that is the best possible and it is amazing. So malaki yung public trasnparency.  People seem to not want it to fail and from what I saw doon sa signing, it seems na lahat naman

Q: Kasi wala pang annexes non. Pag lumabas yun..
A: Pag lumabas yung annexes, the public debate will be clearer but the same conditions will app;y. I mean it will not be unconstitutional

Q.  You are very sure of that?
A. As sure as I can give a legal opinion. As sure as I can read the opnions of the Supreme Court and predict how it will act. As sure as many lawyers can attest, tapos it will be reasonable and pragmatic and it will address the Bangsamoro problem from the point of view of those that signed it for the MILF.

Q. Seriously, can government get the numbers in Congress? Congress will go on recess in December.
A: It will be the 16th  Congresst that will deliver the Bangsamoro Basic Law.

Q: I am referring to the EO. Mahahabol ba nila before the December break?
A: It’s congressional resolution stating the sentiment of the House supportive of the EO creating a Transition Commission

Q. We’re not exactly rid of the spoilers, right?
A: No, no. So the possibility of  filing something in the Supreme Court  is always there

Q.  What will they file?
A:  I don’t know.  Bahala sila kung anong angle…. So far the arguments coming out of the columnists are not viable. …. The process in fact is very constitutional. That’s how you pass an organic act. On the ministerial form of government, Fr. (Joaquin)  Bernas himself says he has no problems with that in the context of Section 15 to 21 (of Article X of the 1987 Constitution)

Q:  How do you entrench the Bangsamoro?
A: It’s already entrenched. As far as government is concerned,  it’s already entrenched , sufficient to have a Bangsamoro Basic Law. Sa point of view

Q: But ARMM is existing and ARMM has to be
A: Abolished

Q: But you can only abolish it with
A: By another law with a plebiscite. Pagkatapos ng plebiscite , the ARMM will no longer exist. What will be (in place) will be the Bangsamoro. Of course, in the process, the ideas that were presented at the negotiating table were simply those of the negotiations kaya there was agreement that the Transitory Commission may raise the possibility of Constitutional amendment pero proposed lang. Walang commitment ng government that it will pass. The commitment of government that it will be acted upon depends on its value… It’s the same power given to any citizen or any group of citizens.

Q: Okay, let’s grant it is really constitutional. Will we be able to follow the timetable? You’re talking about this as legacy, right? That’s also how Ramos viewed (the 1996 peace pact)
A: Ang pagkakaiba, this one will be implemented. . Ramos had two years before his exit as President. This agreement is on the second year of PNoy 2012. May mid-term election in between so there’s four years to try to achieve it. Pag sinimulate  mo yung timeline,  doable sya eh. Let us say Transition Commission is one year, even less. Bangsamoro Basic Law by 2013 or early 2014 – one year in Congress, mahaba na yan. Tapos yung plebiscite. Tapos kung pumasa, yung Bangsamoro Transition Authority until 2016.

Q. Did your daughter finally ask you about the signing?
A: Huli nyang tanong last night was “when are you coming home?” Tapos nung sinabi kong meron pang mga annexes, she said, “I thought it was finished” (laughs)

Q:  What about the TWG on Normalization?  Paano matatapos yan eh kakaumpisa pa lang?
A: We will finish because surprisingly may consensus.

Q: On the normalization? Really?
A: It is not how many commentators see na mahirapan kasi either may armas sila or wala pero  yung negotiations, mas open-ended yung pag-uusap

Q. When you’re telling me surprisingly maraming consensus points you are referring to the document na?
A: The approaches are the same.

Q: But the three TWGs have different styles, right?
A: May common. At the end of the day, they produce text.

Q: Oo nga but the approach is different
A: Depends on the issues. Halimbawa sa wealth-sharing. Di ka pwedeng makapag-umpisa  unless meron  kang background sa numbers. Like how much does the ARMM actually collect? How much does it need to operate. Para lang maliwanag

Q. Di pa pinag-usapan na yan?
A: It’s continuation for power-sharing and wealth-sharing . They already had initial meetings tapos may common points, may points of differences. At some point they decide to write it down. .. Basta may common points. Kasi ang daming papers eh. Ang approach of this entire negotiaitons, alam mo na may patututunguhan. Both parties are able to identify ano yung common points, then isolate the differences and then work on the differences.

Q.  USec (Chito) Gascon said the language of the negotiations has moved from contentious to unresolved to further study
A: Kasi both parties, from the very beginning,  kami ni Sir Iqbal (agreed)  this is not the normal negotiation that is adversarial, na we’re trying to gauge each other’s sincerity. This is after the Framework Agreement so this is now trying to solve the problems of the details at ang benchmarks ditto, una, Framework Agreement, pangalawa what can we actually deliver  – both sides — what are we ready to deliver based on the annexes? Also part of the Framework is, whatever is negotiated here is not final or forever. I mean subject for later on merong adjustments na by law, ganyan, so nothing is really that permanent. What is needed now is

Q: You principal was talking about the devil in the details but you were talking about angels.
A: Angel naman talaga eh. Angel in the details. That metaphor  is more appropriate. Kasi yung pag hinahanap mo yung makakasira sa details, ibang… better to look at it as engaging the other side, see what solutions you can commonly come up with. Kaya angel in the details.

Q. In some aspects, you need to summon more angels or saints. Have you summoned all of them?
A: No need. No need for now.

Q: Kailangan mo pa more angels.
A: More prayers siguro. Pero tingin ko, gusto nung dalawang sides mag-decide na yung mga principals. Lalo na yung nagne-negotiate. So hahanap ng solusyon yan.

Q: What did you do after  the signing? Did you go on vacation?
A: We gave our lives to the Communications group. The President said we need to respond to whatever , whether positive or negative. Also, literally, after the press conference (after the signing on October 15), we were summoned to the Office of the President. Di kami pinauwi. We sat with President and some Cabinet members to strategize on how to deliver.

Q: Ilang oras?
A: Siguro umuwi ako mga 8 (p.m.; the signing ended at around 3:15 p.m.). Brainstorming session on how to deliver. . the President giving a lot of guidance. Siguro ang impression ko doon, the President is very much aware of the kind of leadership that this will require in order to push this through. Kaya ako confident there will be delivery.

Q: So kailan ka nagbakasyon?
A.  Hindi pa. Kasi deretso kami Spain. Tuloy-tuloy na meetings.

Q. Are we ending this round tomorrow (Nov. 17)?
A: Might

Q: Pag andyan na and annexes, signing ulit?
A: Ano tawag niya eh. Ang tawag ko dyan, comprehensive peace pact. The Framework Agreement plus the annexes.

Q: Is it going to be grander than the grand signing in Malacanang?
A: Di pa pinag-usapan. Focus muna on the annexes. What I understand is  there will be  signing. The panels will not functus officio. They will continue serving.  (Carolyn O. Arguillas/MindaNews)