Government and MILF ink peace deal in Mindanao
By Federico V. Magdalena, PhD
HONOLULU: March 28, 2014. After 17 years of long, contentious peace talks, the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front have signed the Comprehensive Agreement for the Bangsamoro (CAB) in Malacanang before officials and invited guests. Among those witnessing the historic event are Philippine President Benigno Aquino III, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, and officials of the two panels Miriam Coronel Ferrer, Ging Deles, Al Hadj Murad Ibrahim, and Mohagher Iqbal. Also present are Malaysian facilitator Ab Ghafar Mohamed, Cardinal Orlando Quevedo, foreign dignitaries from Saudi Arabia, Libya, Germany, Turkey, the United Nations, and local officials.
This event is historic because President Aquino has accomplished what his mother and former Philippine president Cory Aquino had failed to do. In 1987 Cory sued for peace and brought back Nur Misuari of the Moro National Liberation Front, MILF’s rival, to the negotiating table. The talking points were based on the 1976 Tripoli Agreement, as Misuari scaled up his demands to cover Mindanao, Sulu and Palawan as areas of Moro autonomy. The talks bogged down after months of futile discussions.
Much later, the MNLF forged an agreement in 1996 with the next administration under Fidel Ramos. However, five years of running the Moro autonomous government under Misuari did not amount to much, until Aquino came to power in 2010. He declared that this autonomous government was a “failed experiment.” That gave more reason for the peace panel he had formed to talk serious business with the MILF, a breakaway faction that was hell bent on pursuing Muslim independence. Then in October 2012, the two groups signed the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro that led to the current peace deal, acronymed CAB like a fast moving vehicle. In effect, it just operationalized and consolidated four annexes (transitional mechanisms, power and wealth sharing arrangements, and normalization) that substantiate it.
Moro (Muslims) rebels have been up in arms in a secessionist struggle since the early 1970s. In effect, the war that ensued has made everybody a loser. Consider this: Since that time, more than 120,000 have died and millions of people displaced. It costs the government billions of pesos worth of lost opportunity, heavy military expenditures, and untold damages to property.
At this time, there is reason for jubilation. CAB promises to end four decades of Islamic secessionist conflict. It hopes to bring about lasting peace, development and prosperity for Mindanao. MILF Chair Ibrahim calls the pact “the grandest articulation of our aspirations.” Mindanao’s first cardinal Orlando Quevedo opines that this will terminate the injustice committed against the Moros since colonial times.
But there is also reason for concern. The roadmap to peace and development is long and arduous, its path is bumpy and littered with numerous obstacles. For one, Congress has to approve the proposed bill, already called Bangsamoro Act though it is yet to be submitted sometime this year. The peace agreement cannot fly unless it wins the support of Filipinos through their representatives, as well as by civil society.
What now? After CAB is the congressional passing of a Bangsamoro bill that eventually replaces the Autonomous Region for Muslim Mindanao. As the devil is always in the detail, expect heated debates on how the political arrangements shall play out. What are the limits of sharing power and resources? How are the constitutional issues be resolved, for instance, regarding the state’s monopoly of resource exploration? Can the Bangsamoro form a “ministerial government embedded at the heart of the Philippine presidential system? Once approved, a transitional body will be established until the officers of the Bangsamoro government are elected in 2016.
Feisty Senator Miriam Santiago has fired a volley of criticisms against CAB for being unconstitutional. Santiago said the agreement violated the constitution for (1) allowing a “sub-state” for the Moros far beyond the limits of autonomy and thereby derogating the sovereignty of the central government, (2) providing for powers reserved for the state (e.g., exploring natural resources), and (3) that the executive misrepresented itself as the government when there are three branches that comprise it, among others. These issues can be settled in the legislature by granting more powers to, or allowing power-sharing schemes with, a local government like the Bangsamoro. After all, the 1987 constitution recognizes it as one of two regions entitled for autonomy. Constitutionalist Fr. Joaquin Bernas also believes this arrangement is legally possible though it provokes intense and protracted debate. On charter change, he believes that “if it is not prohibited, then it is allowed.” The terrain is wide open, and civil society groups can also play a critical role in the shaping of public opinion.
Still, some sectors may harbor “spoilers” who may not want the agreement to prosper. Some members of this group protested the CAB predecessor, called the Memorandum of Agreement on the Ancestral Domain, due for signing in Kuala Lumpur in August 2008. The Supreme Court ruled the MOA-AD out as unconstitutional.
Unmindful of these scenarios, the general feeling in Mindanao seems to be one of approval. More than 85% yearn for peace, according to latest SWS surveys. Moros in particular have been expecting peace as an alternative to the pestering conflict that has threatened their lives, including Christians and Lumads (tribal communities). The peace deal is welcomed by many Mindanao residents who have become war-fatigued. The Mindanao Business Council believes it will spur growth and investments. Moody’s credit rating for the Philippines may go up even higher than Baa3 it reported in 2013.
For now, the talking has yielded fruits and may silence the guns that do most of the exchanges. As part of the deal, the 12,000 or so MILF rebels will be “decommissioned” gradually and their arms kept somewhere. Meanwhile, shortly before the approval of the CAB the news also reported the arrest of US Senator Leland Yee (Democrat, California) who was charged with arms dealing with “Mindanao Muslim separatists.” The MILF has denied involvement in this matter. Hope that there is no connection between these two events.
Will the peace treaty finally deliver what it purports to do?
Cardinal Quevedo and other advocates argue that peace is the only alternative, now that CAB is finally in motion. Local news from Mindanao banner stories about those who see in it much progress and more hope for a better life. Euphoria pervades the air in many provinces, particularly in Maguindanao and Sultan Kudarat, the MILF lair. There, people in all walks of life, including women, children, and even the aged, express high optimism over a good future. Women paint their faces with green, a signature color of MILF. Mothers now envision their sons to grow up as workers rather than rebels.
But some are not convinced about the turn of events, expecting more troubles. For example, a splinster group called Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters vowed to continue the secessionist goal of independence. Led by Umbra Kato, who is reported to be either dead or ailing, the BIFF has stepped up attacks against military targets in the Cotabato areas. BIFF spokesperson Abu Misry Mama has told Agence France-Press: “We want independence … through armed struggle.”
Also, Sultan Jamalul Kiram III (deceased) and his Tausugs sympathizers felt sidelined by the agreement, and government inaction in the Sabah issue. Kiram’s forces were involved in a deadly incident in Lahad Datu, Sabah in February 2013. His brother led a group that pressed the Malaysian government to recognize their historic claim over Sabah. Joined by MNLF fighters, they engaged Malaysian troops that resulted in heavy casualties. In fact, Misuari’s MNLF was also responsible for the Zamboanga City siege in September 2013, a reprise of the 2001 Cabatangan incident. Both groups have made veiled threats that more wars in Mindanao are forthcoming.
Concerned citizens are hopeful that the Bangsamoro government would face off these problems. Will it be make or break for the MILF? Or to the national government?
Keep tab of events that unfold soon. Abangan!
This essay has been published at: Hawaii Filipino Chronicle, April 12, 2014.