A tortuous path to peace

MILF to hold Bangsamoro assembly this weekend

Government has spent billions of pesos in the Mindanao conflict. (PCIJ file photo)

Government has spent billions of pesos in the Mindanao conflict. (PCIJ file photo)

First of Two Parts

THE LONG road to peace takes a short detour to Camp Darapanan in Sultan Kudarat, Maguindanao, this weekend as the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) holds what it calls the “Bangsamoro General Assembly” at its center of gravity in Central Mindanao.

Throughout the week, social networking sites and mobile phones were abuzz with messages about the movements of contingents from all over Mindanao. “Allahu Akbar! Four truckloads of participants on the way to the General Assembly,” wrote one participant on Facebook. By the middle of this week, hotels in nearby Cotabato City were already fully booked, as reporters, diplomats, and travelers, visitors, and participants prepare for what could be a show of unity, a show of support, or a show of force by the MILF.

Recognized by the government as the MILF’s main camp, Camp Darapanan has hosted previous consultation meetings that have drawn hundreds of thousands of MILF followers. Mindanao Human Rights Action Center (MinHRAC) Executive Director Zainudin Malang says that in the last such consultation, held in 2005, some 900,000 followers flocked to Camp Darapanan to listen to a progress report by the MILF peace panel on the peace talks then. MinHRAC is among the civil-society groups acting as observers in the current government-MILF peace talks.

The MILF consultative assemblies are often viewed as having a three-fold goal: to rally MILF supporters behind the negotiating positions taken by the MILF panel; to keep restive rebel commanders in line and remind them of their sworn allegiance to the MILF central command leadership; and to show the government and the public both the civil society and military backing the group still has in Mindanao.

30-year conflict

The consultations, scheduled on July 7-9 this year, come at a crucial time for the latest round of negotiations between the government and the MILF, which have been locked in battle with the government for more than three decades. Including skirmishes with other Muslim rebel groups, the most common estimate by the international media puts the loss of life from the armed conflict at 50,000 to 60,000, a pitifully conservative estimate by most accounts.

In 2008, the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre in Geneva said the Philippines ranked first in the number of internal refugees worldwide with 600,000 refugees fleeing the fighting in central Mindanao, beating other countries such as Kenya, Congo, Iraq, and Somalia.

Once in a while, both sides have agreed to sit down and talk – albeit with little to show afterward. Over this summer, though, the MILF and government negotiating panels agreed on 10 major points of principle in a meeting in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. In his remarks at the closing of the exploratory talks, government chief negotiator Marvic Leonen even said the agreement “dispels the cynicism” that “the ongoing peace talks have not achieved much, especially with respect to the substantive issues at the core of the negotiations.”

Yet Leonen was also careful to say that they are still quite far from a final agreement. Upon his return to Manila, he would tell newsmen that they were now “at the heart of the negotiations on political settlement,” which would need “continuous consultation with different sectors.”

Framework, compass

MILF negotiator Roberto Alonto had remarked that the 10 points agreed upon in Kuala Lumpur would merely be “the framework or compass for whatever agreement that we would be signing in the near future.”

The truth is that while the 10 points agreed upon have been hailed by both panels as major breakthroughs, they remain fraught with historical and legal landmines and technical and practical issues that could make or break the talks. Too, as one Mindanao observer put it succinctly, while the two panels easily agreed on the wording of the 10 basic principles, they disagree on the interpretations.

At core is the most basic issue: If peace is forged with the MILF, what kind of political creature will emerge from the agreement? The question is key because this will define the commitments that both sides would have to make to get the peace process going. More importantly, it will also determine whether the commitments made could be fully implemented by either side, and whether such commitments would be fully binding for all parties concerned: the executive, the legislature, the judiciary, and the local governments, in the case of the national government, and the restless ground commanders, in the case of the MILF.

For new political entity

Observers agree that the prickliest among the 10 points agreed upon in Kuala Lumpur is the second one: “The parties agree that the status quo is unacceptable and that the parties will work for the creation of a new autonomous political entity in place of the ARMM.”

To the MILF, the meaning of principle two is clear: in its present form, ARMM or the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao has to be discarded. In no way will the MILF agree to head ARMM, either in its present state or in any similar form. But to the national government, point number two refers only to the need for major reforms with ARMM, says historian Patricio Diaz, who is also a close observer of the Mindanao peace talks.

“The parties interpret differently the terms ‘unacceptable status quo’ and ‘new autonomous political entity’,” Diaz wrote in a column run by MindaNews last May 19.

“To the MILF,” he continued, “this means the creation of a full autonomy under full Bangsamoro control. To (the Philippine government) this means the reform of ARMM under a tri-party partnership composed of Government, MILF, and the Moro leaders in the present ARMM. To the MILF this is unacceptable.”

Failed MOA-AD

Four years ago, MILF had tried to spell out what it wanted in a Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD) that, if it had been signed, would have jumpstarted the peace process. But several senators and congressmen, as well as many local government officials in Mindanao opposed the MOA-AD. It was later struck down as unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

In response, angry and restive MILF commanders lashed out at Christian communities, touching off yet another series of battles in Mindanao that further aggravated several centuries of mistrust and several decades of anger and frustration. Last year, MILF 105th base command chief Ameril Umbra Kato announced his displeasure with MILF’s dealings with the government. He then seceded from the main rebel group to form his own Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters.

According to Alonto, what the MILF wants is a political entity similar to the federated states of other countries like the United States and Malaysia, except that it would be the only such state in a country that has been, since the creation of the republic, divided into regions and provinces that are still closely tethered to a unitary central government. In other words, it would be a state of affairs that many Filipinos and Filipino politicians are unfamiliar with, and it seems, terrified of.

“We want to call it a substate,” said Alonto, “but that has to be defined by a political compact with the government.”

Prior experiments

In previous experiments, the Philippine government had offered the Bangsamoro people different forms of autonomy, on different levels. After signing the Tripoli Agreement in 1976, then President Ferdinand Marcos implemented a nominal type of autonomy through Batas Pambansa No. 20, creating the Regional Autonomous Governments in Western and Central Mindanao. The MNLF, the main Muslim rebel group, rejected Marcos’s claim that the autonomous governments were in fulfillment of the Tripoli Agreement, and continued waging war until 1996.

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.

Breakthrough, reversal

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.

MILF rebels in a display of firepower. (PCIJ file photo)

MILF rebels in a display of firepower. (PCIJ file photo)

Sui generis

Now comes the MILF, with its even bolder proposal to create a new state.

MILF senior negotiator and Islamic scholar Michael Mastura acknowledges that this proposed substate would be unique in that it would be the only one in a kingdom of provinces. It is, as Mastura puts it quite academically, an asymmetric relationship, sui generis (a class by itself), to borrow the newly familiar phrase that emerged from the impeachment of Supreme Court Chief Justice Renato Corona. Says Mastura: “We have on the table an agenda that redefines the relationship with the Bangsamoro people.”

This, Mastura says, is “because the nation does not want to federate, or be associative and federative,” referring to the aborted MOA-AD, which would have opened the door for a constitutional amendment to change the system to a federal form of government.

He says MILF does not really care what form of government the Philippines assumes. “What is important,” he says, “is that we have a substate within a larger Philippine state.”

“We are not leaving the Republic,” Mastura says, stressing that the issues of secession and independence are not on the table. “We are not leaving the nation state. We can say that we have presumed to accept (Filipino) citizenship.”

But he says, “There has to be a structural adjustment in the Philippines, not just in political terms. We have to undo the mindset about the unitary setup. It is a mindset that cannot accept another form. The bottom line, what we are after is devolution.”

There is, however, the question of how to create the Moro substate within the bounds of the 1987 Constitution that, on the surface, does not seem to recognize such a political animal. Mastura says, though, that MILF expects the government to explore other more creative ways of constituting it if amending the Constitution proves impractical.

It is legally possible to make “an act of exemption” for the MILF through “a congressional resolution,” he argues. Mastura says that other countries have taken this route, citing the grant of extensive autonomy by the Finnish parliament to Aland Islands in 1920, through the Act of Autonomy of Aland.

As to the “asymmetry” of the Moro substate with the national government and the other local government units, the scholar says the best example of such an unusual arrangement is China and Hong Kong. China, despite its authoritarian regime, has allowed Hong Kong to flourish under the principle of “one country, two systems” model.

More hurdles

Yet while creating a substate would be a major challenge, it is only one among the many hurdles hidden in the agreed-upon 10 points. The fourth point, for instance, states that the two parties “agree that the new autonomous political entity shall have a ministerial form of government.” This also raises several legal and practical questions. To the MILF, this means that a minister and his cabinet would head the new Moro substate. Again, this would be unique to the new Moro substate in a country still run by a unitary form of government.

Under the MILF proposal, members of the state’s legislative assembly will be elected by districts, says MILF negotiator Abhoud Syed Lingga. These regional legislators will elect their chief minister, who will then select members of his cabinet. “The difference,” says Lingga, “is that as of now, elections (of the executive) are at large.”

Who governs Muslim Mindanao is just as important as what kind of system governs a region that has oft been called the land of promise, and in the same breath the land of turmoil. Mindanao was ceded by Spain to the Americans in the Treaty of Paris in 1898 over the objections of the sultanates that controlled the region then. In the succeeding decades, Moros resisted attempts to integrate the region with the Philippines. Moro Datus even petitioned the United States Congress and the US President to absorb Mindanao as US territory instead of including it in the Philippine Republic that was being formed.

Over the years, Moros became even more alienated from the rest of the country as successive governments adopted a land resettlement policy that encouraged Luzon and Visayan settlers to move to Mindanao. At the turn of the 20th century, 76 percent of Mindanao was Muslim; a century later, the ratio is now 22 percent Muslim and 78 percent Christian. The changing demography of Mindanao continues to be a sensitive, even alarming issue for many Moros.

No impact on ground

Government’s attempts at finding a solution to the conflict do not appear to have had any impact on the ground, despite the billions of pesos poured in and the thousands of lives lost. Despite all the past experiments at autonomy and self-rule, Mindanao still hosts six of the ten poorest provinces in the Philippines. In 2006, the ARMM had the highest poverty incidence for children, farmers, women, the youth, and the urban poor. In 2009, Maguindanao province had one of the highest poverty incidences in the country at 44.6 percent. Sulu and Tawi-Tawi were not far behind with 39.3 and 31.5 percent respectively, according to the National Statistical Coordination Board.

Exploitation of natural resources and revenue generation also continue to be a major issue for many Moros, who see imperial Manila as an exploiter of resources. As such, this could be yet another sensitive issue, albeit one that has not yet been fully discussed by the panels.

As to the powers of the new entity, the sixth agreement in principle states:
“There will be power-sharing and wealth sharing between the national government and the new political entity. In the matter of power sharing, the national government will have its reserved powers, the new political entity will have its exclusive powers, and there will be concurrent powers shared by the national government and the new political entity.”

The parties agree that the following matters are reserved for the competence of the national government: defense and external security; foreign policy; common market and global trade; coinage and monetary policy; citizenship and naturalization; and postal service. But the seventh point in principle acknowledges “the power of the new political entity to create its own sources of revenue, subject to limitations as may be mutually agreed by the parties, and to have a just share in the revenues generated through exploration, development, or utilization of natural resources.”

What powers to claim?

Mastura says the MILF is still in the midst of drawing up a list of powers that it will demand from the national government, especially the power to generate wealth, or taxation. “We will have to review wealth-generating sources,” he says. “We will have to review revenue sources that come from natural resources.”

MILF negotiator Datu Antonio Kinoc, the lumad or highlander in the MILF panel, also emphasizes that the new entity would in no way be an Islamic state. A non-Muslim, Kinoc dismisses fears that the MILF would impose an ultra-conservative Islamic state in the Philippines like Saudi Arabia or Taliban-era Afghanistan. “We will still be within Philippine law,” he says. “If it becomes an Islamic state, I will be the first to object to that.”

But Mastura makes a distinction between citizenship and nationality. “Yes we have accepted (Philippine) citizenship,” he says. “But nationality, no. Here is where the sophistication lies.” According to Mastura, the nationality of those in the Moro substate would be Bangsamoro.

MILF’s Alonto explains that citizenship and nationality are the same in unitary states. But, he says, “there are states where these are separate,” citing as “best examples” Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Both are U.S. territories (also called “unincorporated territories”) where residents are considered U.S. citizens but who have, to a limited extent, their own system of governance. For example, while Puerto Ricans are considered U.S. citizens, they are not allowed to vote in the U.S. presidential elections even though the head of state of Puerto Rico is the U.S. president. Puerto Rico’s governor, House of Representatives, and Senate are also delegated by the U.S. Congress.

“In the case of the former Soviet Union,” says Alonto, “ it was composed of different republics, they had their respective nationalities, but they were all Soviet citizens.”

What about MNLF?

For all these, there’s a thorny question that begs to be answered first: Can the national government commit to the creation of a substate to one rebel group that a previous administration had already committed to another rebel group?

It’s a query that has haunted Moro rebel groups for years and even now remains a specter in the MILF’s attempts to form a Moro substate. So much so that while MILF leaders last month met with church and business groups in Manila in what amounted to the MILF’s first attempt at a PR blitz, representatives of the rebel group also met quietly with leaders of the MNLF in Davao City.

MNLF negotiator Abraham Cerveza, who was present in the meeting, says MILF leaders had come to the MNLF seeking support for its new bid for a peace agreement. The MILF apparently wants a united front of civil society, nongovernment organizations, and even other rebel groups to strengthen its bargaining position with the national government.

“They are trying to rally all Muslim organizations to join them,” says Cerveza, a Protestant pastor who was a senior negotiator of the MNLF for the 1996 peace agreement.

The problem in asking the MNLF to support the MILF’s bid for a substate is that the MNLF still insists that government has failed to deliver all its promises in the 1996 peace agreement — promises that the MNLF believes were even less substantial than what the MILF is asking for now. While the MNLF was guaranteed the governorship of ARMM in 1996, by 2005, the rebel group would lose that post to former Shariff Aguak Mayor and later ARMM governor Zaldy Ampatuan.

Ampatuan is now in detention as one of the suspects in the killing of 58 people including 32 journalists in what is now known as the Maguindanao Massacre of 2009. With Ampatuan jailed and out of office, President Benigno S. Aquino III appointed Mujiv Hataman as the officer in charge of the region. At present, the MNLF holds no position of influence in the regional or provincial level. The only MNLF commander in a local post is Cotabato Mayor Muslimin Sema, who is also secretary general of the MNLF.

“They (MILF) want something more,” says Cerveza. “ARMM is just an executive treaty, but what the MILF wants is absolute authority over an area. What they are asking for is beyond what we have asked under the Republic.”

“It is an attempt at an impossibility, unless the government yields,” he says. “No government will allow itself to be subdivided.”

Breakaway group

Interestingly, the MILF was actually an offshoot of Salamat Hashim’s disenchantment with the MNLF’s negotiations with the Philippine government in the late ‘70s. As the MNLF negotiated for a better deal with President Marcos, Salamat thought that the rebel group had moved away from its religious roots, surrendered too much of its demands, and adopted a more secular mindset.

In December 1977, Salamat had left the MNLF. By the next year, he had gathered together a core group of like-minded disgruntled rebel commanders who would later form the leadership of the MILF. In 1984, the MILF was formally launched as a separate Muslim rebel group, with its base in central Mindanao, while Misuari’s MNLF considered its stronghold to be the southern Mindanao area.

Cerveza says the MNLF leaders present in the meeting last month indicated they were cool to the idea of supporting the MILF peace talks. “I said, we have a problem there,” recalls Cerveza. “We in MNLF have an agreement (with the government) that has yet to be properly implemented. So what will (the government) give to MILF now?”

“Unless that 1996 peace agreement is nullified, we cannot (support the MILF),” he adds. “But if the government abrogates the agreement with us, then we also have another problem.”

For its part, MILF acknowledges that it is keeping in mind the problems that have come up with Manila’s 1996 peace agreement with the MNLF. Mastura remarks that while MNLF signed an agreement, “in reality, a meeting of minds didn’t happen. What happened was that there was an executive agreement with FVR for the SPCPD. Now we are looking at another kind of agreement.”

Trust a core issue

In the end, it will all boil down to trust, says MILF negotiating panel chairman Mohagher Iqbal. The government would have to trust the MILF that it seeks autonomy, not independence, and a state respectful of religious freedom, and not an Islamic state. The MILF, meanwhile, needs to trust that the government will mobilize all its resources to ensure that the proposed substate becomes a reality, regardless of whether the Charter is amended, and regardless of what form of national government Filipinos choose for themselves. Even, perhaps, regardless of what the present Christian majority in Mindanao would say about a new political experiment in their midst.

“What MILF really wants is a federal system, pero wala eh,” says Iqbal, referring to failed attempts in the past to initiate an amendment to the Constitution.

The MILF’s official website, Luwaran.com, put it in layman’s terms in an editorial released last June 8.

“We just want to be in the “driver’s seat” during the transition period,” the MILF website’s editorial said. “If people (not the spoilers) do not want this term because it carries the stigma of bossism, authoritarianism, if not outright dictatorship, then we can use other terms, provided the MILF is the chief ‘shepherd’. In the end, those who will run the new Moro political entity will be determined in a fair and free election, not the current system in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) where the governor, vice governor, and members of the legislative assembly are anointed and made to win by Manila.“

Comfort zone

MinHRAC’s Malang meantime worries that the Christian majority would have difficulty thinking beyond its comfort zone. Unless that is resolved, he says, it will always be a question of a minority feeling aggrieved by a majority.

“The problem here is majority-minority conflict to the core,” Malang says. “What if the majority refuses to budge and the minority refuses to forget its grievances. There will be no end to the fighting.”

“Trust and confidence is always relative,” Iqbal says. “There is no absolute trust and confidence. Do we have trust and confidence with President Aquino? Our answer is a very big yes. But trust is tied to the resolution of the problems of Mindanao. How do we solve the Bangsamoro question free of any imposition, a new formula free of imposition.”

He answers his own question: “Bagong ARMM, walang pilitan (A new ARMM, without arm-twisting). We have to think out of the box.” – PCIJ, July 2012