The price of peace in Mindanao

The price of peace in Mindanao

Recently, in a surprise move, President Benigno Aquino III traveled unannounced to Tokyo, Japan on a “secret” mission: to meet Al Haj Ebrahim Murad, the chairman of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). Although Aquino’s aides later said that the “secret” meeting was just a tête-à-tête between the two leaders, the issue that brought them together is no secret.

It’s common knowledge that the MILF – which splintered from the Muslim National Liberation Front (MNLF) in 1977 — has been fighting for the creation of an independent and sovereign nation carved out of Mindanao, which they claim to be their “ancestral domain.” But Murad told Aquino at that meeting that MILF was willing to abandon its demand for independence and would settle for a Bangsamoro “sub-state.”

Peace process
And what exactly does a “sub-state” mean? That is a question that would be the focal point of the peace negotiation from here on, which I can sense would be as contentious, if not more contentious, than before. However, if the peace negotiation between the government and the MILF is not going to bear fruit soon, the issue could escalate into open warfare in Mindanao just like what happened several times in the past.

Before Aquino decided to meet Murad in Tokyo, the ceasefire pact between the government and MILF — signed 10 years ago — was tenuous and shaky. However, there seems to be a mutual attempt to maintain a peaceful coexistence. In a way, the MILF is exercising a certain degree of unofficial — or de facto – autonomy of the area it occupies. And while the peace negotiation is going on – albeit at a turtle pace – Mindanao is relatively peaceful except for occasional ceasefire violations.

Now that Aquino has gotten himself directly involved in the peace negotiation, suddenly the laissez faire politics that has dominated the peace process for three decades is now on the wayside. With Aquino on the driver’s seat in the peace process, he revealed that his administration is working out the details of the creation of a Bangsamoro “sub-state.” Whoa! Slow down Mr. President. Driving a twin-turbo Porsche at top speed to reach a peace accord might be dangerously fast; but flying an F-16 at supersonic speed could be suicidal. Your predecessor — former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo — tried to fast track the creation of a Bangsamoro homeland at warp speed and failed. Are you sure you want to repeat the same mistake?

Bangsamoro Judicial Entity – 2008
In my article, “What Price Peace” (PerryScope, September 9, 2008), I wrote: “In her fervent desire to have peace in Mindanao, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo went to the extent of secretly forging an agreement that would virtually cede a huge portion of Philippine territory to the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). The treaty would have expanded the present Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) into a virtual state within a state replete with all the functions and authority of a sovereign and independent state.

“But, in a twist of fate, the day before the signing of a Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD) last August 5, 2008 in Malaysia, the Supreme Court issued a temporary restraining order in response to several petitions claiming that the treaty was unconstitutional. What followed next was a tragedy of error that cost lives and property in Mindanao.

“In the aftermath of the public uproar over the attempt to partition the country, Gloria decided to scrap the controversial MOA-AD. She also dissolved the government’s peace panel negotiating with the MILF. Basically, it’s back to square one for the peace process. And, worst, Mindanao is now in a virtual state of war or, to be more precise, a civil war between Muslim Filipinos and Christian Filipinos. In reaction, Mohaqher Iqbal, the MILF’s chief peace negotiator declared, ‘The peace process is now in purgatory.’ ”

Bangsamoro “sub-state” – 2011
If Aquino is going to create a Bangsamoro “sub-state,” how will it differ from Gloria’s Bangsamoro Judicial Entity? Aquino’s solution to that was to remove the provisions of the “sub-state” that are deemed unconstitutional. But Mr. President, the idea of a “sub-state” – or a state within a state — is by itself, unconstitutional. We’ve gone through that before and it’s very likely that the Supreme Court would take a hard look at its constitutionality again.

Marvic Leonen, the government’s peace panel chairman, hinted that a Bangsamoro “sub-state” is not feasible. However, he said that the government is looking at a one-year timetable to “seal a peace agreement” with the MILF.

But the MILF negotiator, Michael Mastura, said that MILF would not settle for anything less than a “sub-state,” which he described as similar in political structure to those of Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland who have their own governments but remain within the framework of the United Kingdom. And to make his point crystal clear, Mastura said that if they were not granted a “sub-state,” the MILF would revert to its old position, which calls for secession.

In 2001, RA 9054 was passed to expand the autonomy of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), which was created in 1989. However, the new law states that ARMM “shall remain an integral and inseparable part of the national territory of the Republic.” MNLF claims that the new law violated the Final Peace Agreement (FPA) – signed between the government and MNLF in 1996 — both in letter and spirit.

In November 2007, the first tripartite meeting among representatives of the Philippine government, MNLF, and the 57-member-state Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) met in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. The tripartite meeting served as the mechanism to resolve the “kinks and weaknesses” in the FPA.

Last February 2011, at the fourth tripartite meeting in Jeddah, the Philippine government and MNLF agreed to an “amendatory bill,” which will be introduced in the Philippine Congress for “early adoption.” The tripartite meeting also welcomed the creation of the Bangsamoro Development Assistance Fund (BDAF).

Price of peace
The ideal thing to do is to expand the FPA to include MILF. But this is easier said than done. However, if Aquino is going to pursue a separate treaty with MILF without involving – or consulting – MNLF, the political dynamics in Mindanao could dramatically change.

The real challenge for Aquino would be how to bring MILF and MNLF together within the framework of ARMM. That was the spirit of the law creating ARMM.
The President’s meeting with the MILF chairman was indeed a great leap forward. However, it remains to be seen what direction it would take? Will it lead to the creation of an autonomous Bangsamoro “sub-state,” exclusive of MNLF and separate from ARMM? Or, will it unify MILF and MNLF under the aegis of ARMM… and bring peace to Mindanao?