THE FRAMEWORK AGREEMENT that representatives of the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) will sign in Malacanang this afternoon is, for all the euphoria, only the start of the long difficult road to peace.
And in the end, it is still just the road; it is certainly by no means the destination.
“Today is just the beginning of a very long process,” says Atty. Zainudin Malang, Executive Director of the Mindanao Human Rights Action Center (MinHRAC), one of the official observers in the peace talks between the government and the MILF.
“Kelangan, now more than ever, ng tutok,” Malang said. (Now more than ever, we need to focus on this.)
Officials of the MILF led by Chairman Al Haj Murad Ebrahim troop to Malacanang today with a delegation of more than a hundred MILF leaders and personalities for the signing of the Framework Agreement that both parties forged in Kuala Lumpur last week. The Framework Agreement is meant to act as a roadmap to guide future negotiations between the two parties.
Malang stressed that as a roadmap, the Framework Agreement is not the final peace agreement in itself; in fact, the final peace agreement is still a long way off, to be hammered out in a series of succeeding negotiations that may be friendly or contentious – or both.
Still, the Framework Agreement was ground-breaking in the sense that it laid out the guidelines by which both sides would agree to a settlement. It also had none of the controversy and fear-mongering that accompanied the aborted Memorandum of Agreement of Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD) in 2008.
“It is simply a soft starter document for the final political solution,” said senior MILF negotiator Michael Mastura in a text message to the PCIJ. “Annexures will spell out the substantive elements.”
What this means is that there will be much more, and busier negotiations ahead on the details that would give flesh and blood to the framework that both sides had agreed upon.
Mastura said the MILF was being cautiously optimistic about the prospects for peace, even as MILF leaders, long used to fighting it out in the mountains and marshes of Central Mindanao, troop to Malacanang for their first personal glimpse of the Presidential Palace. This, even as various human rights, civil society, and nongovernmental groups from Manila to Mindanao hail the Framework Agreement and mark today, October 15, as a red letter day.
“Celebrative, but with caution,” was how Mastura described the mood of the rebel leadership.
“We cannot relax, if we are to make the promise of peace a reality,” said Malang. Malang also appealed to those who may want to oppose the peace agreement with the MILF to give the peace process a chance to succeed.
“They (critics) are not the ones who bear the burden of war,” Malang said. “It is the ordinary people, the farmers and the families, who bear the burden of war.”
With its signing, the Framework Agreement takes official form today under the shadow of many other previous attempts to find peace in Mindanao; many previous attempts at agreements that were forged, signed, and failed.
In 1976, the government of then President Ferdinand Marcos signed an agreement with the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) with the intercession of Libyan strongman Muammar Khaddafy. The MNLF would almost immediately reject what would later be called the 1976 Tripoli Agreement after Marcos unilaterally created two autonomous regions in Mindanao as his way of fulfilling his end of the bargain. Marcos issued Batas Pambansa No. 20, creating the Regional Autonomous Governments in Western and Central Mindanao. The MNLF rejected Marcos’s claim that the autonomous governments were in fulfillment of the Tripoli Agreement, and continued waging war until 1996. Unhappy with the way the 1976 Tripoli Agreement turned out, and dissatisfied with how MNLF Chairman Nur Misuari was running the rebel leadership, Salamat Hashim broke away from the MNLF in 1978 to form the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.
What followed were a series of other attempts to solve the Bangsamoro issue along the same vein. Republic Act 6734 in 1989 enabled the creation of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, a region that gave expanded autonomy to the Marcos-era Moro regions within the existing framework of the 1987 Constitution. But only four Muslim-dominated provinces — Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao, Sulu, and Tawi-Tawi — opted to be part of the ARMM.
An apparent breakthrough came in 1996, when the Ramos government and the Organization of Islamic Conference convinced the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) to accept an offer to govern an expanded ARMM, and head a special coordinating body for the development of Mindanao, called the Southern Philippines Council for Peace and Development or SPCPD.
While the agreement was prematurely described by some as the end of the Moro conflict in the southern Philippines, MNLF Chairman Nur Misuari had to stamp out flames of discontent in his own backyard. One senior MNLF negotiator reveals that on the eve of the signing of the 1996 MNLF peace agreement, Misuari was weeping and having second thoughts. Misuari’s commanders had confronted him with a simple question: after almost three decades of fighting for independence for Muslim Mindanao, would the MNLF settle for a “coordinating body” and a barely working regional bureaucracy?
In the end, the negotiator says, OIC representatives prevailed upon Misuari to sign on the dotted line, or lose the backing of the influential organization.
The MNLF-Manila honeymoon would not last long; by 2001, then-President Joseph Estrada had thrown Misuari in jail for rebellion, and the MNLF had lost control over ARMM. Sixteen years later, the MNLF still insists that the national government had not yet fulfilled its promises under the 1996 peace agreement. In fact, Misuari is now complaining that the framework deal with the MILF has effectively left the MNLF out in the cold.
Under the framework established by the Philippine government and the MILF in Kuala Lumpur last week, both parties agreed that the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) is a “failed experiment” that needs to be replaced with an entirely different formula.
The new entity to take the place of the ARMM is to be called Bangsamoro. The new entity, controversially, is to be ministerial in nature, and asymmetric to the rest of the local government units around it.
By ministerial, the negotiators envision a new autonomous region that would have a completely different setup from one that most Filipinos have gotten used to after a century of using the Presidential-executive system. This means that the chief minister of the region would not be elected by the voters as a whole; instead he would be chosen by the regional legislators who are in turn elected by their constituents. This is quite similar to the parliamentary system used in countries like the United Kingdom.
In that sense, the Bangsamoro would by asymmetrical in relation to the other local government units that continue to exist under the chief executive system.
The MILF argument is simple: the unitary form of government has failed Mindanao in the past, and it will continue to fail so long as power is overly centralized in Manila. The solution, the MILF says, is real devolution of powers, and real autonomy. The proposed solution however may yet prove to be among the stickiest issues to be tackled in future negotiations, as there are questions as to whether this would need amendments to the 1987 Constitution, as envisioned by the MILF.