Prospects and Obstacles of the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro

INTRODUCTION

The peace negotiation between the Government of the Philippines (GPH) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) has been going on for the last 16 years since January 1997. When will it conclude successfully is beyond the competence of this writer. It is very much dependent on many varying factors, some of which are beyond the control of the parties. However, the most crucial factor is still the willingness and commitment of the main players in the conflict to end it. They can always find ways and means to bring the process to success, with no side losing face and short-changed. The process is made more assuring if they can draw the significant support of others, including the international community. After all, negotiation is a dialogue between two or more people or parties, who intend to reach an understanding, resolve point of difference, produce an agreement or craft outcomes to satisfy various interests of the parties and other stake-holders. The need for everybody to own the process and its result is a tall order in this kind of undertaking.

Currently, measured in term of the positive responses of the public, not to mention the MILF members and sympathizers and government officials, especially those in the provinces and municipalities, the prospects of the GPH-MILF Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro (FAB) appear great. Even those who were previously opposed to the GPH-MILF Memorandum of Agreement on the Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD) are now generally supportive of the Agreement and the peace process.

However, the positive posture above is just one side of the equation. There is the other side of it. In the succeeding discussion, I will try to present the two sides of the issue and let the readers draw their own views or conclusions. The fact is that success or failure of the Agreement and the peace as a whole is not yet determined. It depends on many factors, inside and outside of main peace process, and how the parties and their support groups conduct themselves.

In negotiation, success and failure are relative; meaning, success is not measured in term of signing an agreement. Similarly, failure is not reckoned to mere inability of any of the parties, or two of them, to comply with one or two aspects of the agreement.

Essentially, success and failure are measured in their totality. They encompass the purposes and processes. In the case of the Moro Question in Mindanao, it is a success if it is fully addressed, the real healing process begins, and ends in a situation of normality in the Bangsamoro. Failure, on the other hand, takes place if the parties or just one side decides to stop talking, throw whatever achievement into the dustbin, discard each and all infrastructures of the peace process, and start shooting. Then and there, violence becomes the normal happening.

THE PROSPECTS

Without fear of contradiction, the Government of the Philippines (GPH) and the MILF have largely concluded that settling the conflict in Mindanao by military means is not practical. It is a waste of lives and properties. It only prolongs the sufferings of the people and stunts development in and outside of conflict zones. The war stalemates and there is no clear winner.

Of course, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) has a clear edge in conventional warfare. But war is not settled alone by material and logistical considerations; sometimes or oftentimes, the will to fight and to sacrifice counts as much or perhaps even more. The MILF can always fight back and survive by the application of full guerrilla warfare. Using small and highly-trained and well-motivated fighters, the MILF can create havoc and destruction everywhere without losing sight of the Bangsamoro people’s political agenda and aspiration. As a consequence, the two parties saw the negotiating table as the “most practical and civilized way” of settling their conflict. This led to the negotiation that started in January 1997.

This perhaps is the first reason to be hopeful that the GPH-MILF peace negotiation has a bright future. Bloodied protagonists, in addition to the population tired of war, will find solace and comfort in the negotiating table in settling their conflict that is deeply rooted in the past.

The next factor that reinforces the chance of success of this negotiation is the perceived sincerity, popularity, and leadership shown by President Benigno Aquino III. Except for his own mother, the late President Corazon Aquino, who is considered an icon of democracy in the Philippines, perhaps no other Filipino president from Martial Law years of President Ferdinand E. Marcos in 1972 has ever enjoyed such clout and popularity as the current President Aquino. He won the presidency with overwhelming majority over his closest rival, surprisingly the deposed President Joseph Estrada. Added to this is Aquino’s down-to-earth approach or statesmanship that endeared him to the people; for example, in his meeting with MILF Chairman Al Haj Murad Ebrahim in the outskirts of Tokyo, Japan, on August 4, 2011.

Many quarters did not appreciate this gesture, describing it as demeaning the status of the presidency. So far, he has not faltered in complying with his commitment delivered to the MILF through the government peace panel. Consider the following: After the signing of the FAB on October 15, President Aquino signed the Executive Order on November 16 creating the Transition Commission (TC). The next day, his allies in Congress spearheaded the adoption of the congressional resolutions of the House and the Senate in support of the Executive Order.

But sincerity of one side is meaningless if not matched by the partner. We are lucky, because the MILF is not lacking in it. If one examines all past major violations of the ceasefire that led to bloody wars and the impasses in the peace talks, it becomes clear that those were mostly committed by the government and its armed forces. The MILF merely reacted and defended itself. A brief flashback to events will show these facts: In 2000, former President Estrada ordered an all-out war against the MILF despite the ceasefire and the progress of the talks.

On February 11, 2003, former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo again launched another all-out war against the MILF on the pretext of running after kidnap-for-ransom groups holding out in the Liguasan Marsh. At the time of the attack, the late MILF Chairman Salamat Hashim was delivering a sermon during the Eid’l Adha prayers marking the culmination of the pilgrimage to Mecca, the fifth pillar of Islam. In August 2008, the government deliberately did not sign the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD) after the parties initialed it on July 27. War broke out immediately.

Another important reason that gives the peace process a good shot in the arms includes the support given by the public, civil society and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), as well as other sectors of society. The media, church people, academe, women, members of the indigenous communities, and local government officials are all generally supportive. On the other hand, except for Zamboanga City Mayor Celso Lobregat, who occasionally snipes at the peace process and the FAB, the traditional spoilers like former North Cotabato governor Emmanuel Piñol and Iligan City Mayor Lawrence Cruz, are generally quiet. They are either unwilling to go against the bandwagon created by the signing of the FAB or feel subdued by the popularity of President Aquino. Which is which is difficult to determine.

Likewise, the participation or contribution of the international community, both states and international non-governmental organizations (INGOs), particularly the International Contact Group (ICG), in stabilizing or promoting the peace process cannot be overstated. Suffice to say that members of the ICG, whose mandate is to “exert proper leverage” to the parties, are surely not remiss in this regard. Mostly doing their thing unheralded, their efforts and effects on how the parties conduct themselves, not excluding change of positions, are easily noticeable. No one would admit this openly, but in the negotiation bargaining is not only taking place between or among the formal players but support groups are also part of it. Much of those things are taking place beyond the flashes of cameras and publicity stunts.

Similarly, other countries outside the loop of the peace process but whose strategic interests are intertwined and affected by the resolution or non-resolution of the conflict in Mindanao cannot adopt passive stance at the sidelines. Surely, they will decide and act in accordance with what is good for their national interests.

Finally, the architecture of the GPH-MILF peace process is designed in such a way that failure is not part of it; or at least it is the last thing to happen. The parties have drawn a lot of good or bitter lessons from the experience of the MNLF and the government where their agreement, after more than a decade after signing, is still the subject of bickering, especially in matter of implementation. Their peace panels disbanded immediately after the signing of the GRP (Government of the Republic of the Philippines)-MNLF Final Peace Agreement of September 2, 1996. There was no effective monitoring mechanism to rely on. MNLF leaders jockeyed for positions in government and their combatants hurriedly integrated themselves into the AFP and the Police. The two measures effectively derailed the objective of the Bangsamoro. To this day, they seemed to have stumbled into the quicksand of uncertainty.

In the current GPH and MILF arrangement, there is in Mindanao the presence of the ICG, the Third Party Monitoring Team (TPMT), and the International Monitoring Team (IMT), as well as the vigilance of the NGOs andcivil society organizations, both international and domestic, which give practically no elbow room for any party to violate any of their commitment. Whichever party tries to undermine key obligations to the Agreement will be put in a very odd situation and in the spotlight. It has no effective way to defend itself. With the advent of the state-of-the art technology that reaches any part of the globe in seconds, non-compliance is very easy to expose and the guilty will be condemned before it can assemble its defense. Shaming and blaming are always available especially to the weaker party. This is especially lethal if the aggrieved party, after exhausting all the remedies provided by the process, is willing to take the risk of war if only to showcase its adherence to the sacredness of obligations. The MILF had proved itself on this issue in several instances in the past.

One important safeguard feature of this peace process is the Transitional Arrangement and Modalities, which outlines the roadmap or steps the parties have to follow and must comply with. In order to ensure compliance, they created the Third Party Monitoring Team (TPMT) whose mandate is to monitor, review and assess the implementation of all signed agreements, primarily the FAB and its Annexes.

The other safety nets include: 1) The peace panels will not be disbanded and will continue to engage each other as long as there are still unresolved issues or new ones cropped up necessary to be taken up for discussion; 2) There will be no unilateral implementation of all signed agreement especially the FAB; 3) As above-stated, the TPMT is created by the parties to monitor their sincere and full compliance; 4) The Joint Normalization Commission (JNC) composed of the GPH, MILF Peace Negotiating Panels, together with Malaysian Facilitator and the TPMT, whose main function is to review, assess or evaluate the implementation of all agreements and the progress of the transition, was also created; and, 5) An “Exit Agreement” officially terminating the peace negotiation may be signed by the parties if and only when all agreements have been fully implemented.

On the more concrete example of this bright prospect: On January 25, 2013, the parties ended their 35th Exploratory Talks in Kuala Lumpur with milestone achievements that included the signing of the Term of Reference (TOR) of the TPMT whose mandate is “to monitor, review and assess the implementation of all signed agreements, primarily the FAB and its Annexes”. They also scored heavily in their discussion of the four Annexes on power-sharing, wealth-sharing, transitional arrangement and modalities, and normalization. I share the confidence of my counterpart in government, Prof. Miriam Ferrer-Coronel, when she asserted that the signing of the comprehensive agreement can be possible in March this year, barely less than one month from now. This will happen if there will be no major intervening events, which sometimes are expected in long and hard negotiation.

THE OBSTACLES

The best evidence to show how these obstacles played hard on the parties is to say that the GPH-MILF Peace Talks has been with us for the last 16 years. It encompassed four Filipino presidents and 11 government chief peace negotiators. (The MILF has four chief peace negotiators). Three major wars, 2000, 2003, and 2008, were fought during this span of time. Until today, the parties still struggle to finish the peace process; and long sought success is not yet in the bag, so to say.

Additional inputs to stress the present difficulty in the peace process follows: Before they signed the TOR of the TPMT and settled several substantive issues in the FAB’s four Annexes, they first had to end their 34th exploratory meeting last December 12-15 in virtual impasse. They adjourned on the fifth day without signing any formal document, not even setting the dates for the next round of talks. This was, however, overcome during the subsequent meeting of the parties last January 21-25.

As earlier noted, the road ahead is not paved; it is still full of twists and turns. There are dangers practically lurking everywhere. There are many “ifs” and “supposes”; for instance, suppose the Bangsamoro Basic Law  will be rejected by Congress, which is supposed to pass a “good legislation”. Suppose the Basic Law, even if passed by Congress, will not be ratified by the people in the plebiscite? Suppose only few provinces, cities, and municipalities will join the new Bangsamoro entity? Suppose the Basic Law will be declared by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional? Suppose the spoilers and other resisters will succeed to mass their guns and launch an all-out attack against the Basic Law?

Answering one if or getting through one phase breeds more ifs and uncertainties. The litany of the possibilities is endless and one can easily court depression in the process. The only consolation is like what the Portuguese explorer, Ferdinand Magellan, in search of the Spice Island, did by ordering his men while in the high seas for six months without any sight of land, to sail, sail, and sail until they finally landed on Limasawa on the central part of the Philippines on March 16, 1521. Our yearning for real peace in our homeland and to arrest the worsening situation keep us moving until we achieve our objective; and in doing so, we do not want to entertain failure in the current negotiation. For us, we confront and settle one problem after another.

The truth is that even spoilers and other resisters are not wholly treated negatively, but they add reason in our determination to work harder and harder. Oftentimes, these spoilers enable us to discover creative and much-improved ways and means to address a particular problem. And through sincere continuing engagement or dialogue, if one, two or several of the resisters are won over to the side of the peace-makers, the impact on the whole exercise is tremendous. They can become the best spokesmen to win over or neutralize other spoilers, or at least, their effectiveness is rendered less encompassing.

Still, there are other spoilers who never hide their resistance or abhorrence for the success of the GPH-MILF peace negotiation. Until now MNLF Chairman Nur Misuari is lashing at the GPH-MILF peace negotiation, especially the FAB. He described process as an illegal exercise and the FAB as menu for war in Mindanao. Another MNLF faction headed by Cotabato City Vice Mayor Muslemin Sema could also hardly conceal his displeasure over the FAB and the impending success of the MILF at the negotiation table.

By and large, these groups are deterrent to the success of the FAB and the peace process. However, the MILF continues to play cool in the face of these seemingly provocations and instead keep on reaching out to them, with the hope that they see the wisdom behind the FAB. The MILF ceaselessly explains that the FAB is for the entire Bangsamoro people. The MILF is only good for the duration of the two transition periods, and after which everybody is free to join the political fray and whoever succeeds will run the Bangsamoro regular government in 2016.

Finally, I am tempted to add one more deterrent to the brighter light at the end of the proverbial tunnel; i.e., the time constraint. Two months of the allotted three-year for the two transitions, Transition Commission and Transition Authority, to operate and write the Bangsamoro Basic Law, Congress to pass a good legislation, and have it adopted by the people in a plebiscite, have already been consumed. The four Annexes to the FAB have not yet been settled by the parties as of this writing. Chances for more delays cannot be discounted altogether, especially after a new GPH peace panel chairperson took over the saddle of their negotiating team. As chairperson, she is still a neophyte.

So far, however, the time allotted to finish the process is not yet in the critical level. There is still enough time to do it. The two parties can still make it.

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CONCLUSION

Truly, peace-making is not an easy task. It is unnerving as it is exhausting. It is not the forte of the genius or the strong. They are known to have less patience in talking to the naïve and the weakling. Only those imbued with a purpose and mission—and armed with perseverance—can make it through to the end. After all, negotiation is not by force that it moves forward; rather it is the collaborative work of the parties that sets it in motion.

Frankly, I do not know what exactly lies ahead in the peace process, say three years from now. While the prospects are brighter than the obstacles, the final outcome is not for us to know yet. Many interlocking factors play against each other. The only consolation, or perhaps as a way of ensuring success in the exercise, as far as the MILF is concerned, is we work more than 24 hours a day especially after we signed the FAB. There is a little bit of exaggeration here but this is to describe how we make sure non-compliance is not part of our work norm.

But the international community, especially Japan, can make a difference in pushing the GPH-MILF peace process and the FAB to greater chance of success. The current efforts of Japan in helping the peace process formally or outside of its infrastructure are great, and perhaps few states can equal. But certainly these can be made greater and greater.

Mohagher Iqbal
4 February 2013

From P’s Pod, vol. I, no 3. March 2013

Link to P’s Pod March 2013

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the articles in P’s Pod are personal views of the authors and do not represent views or positions of particular institutions, organizations, groups or parties, including those of the authors and the universities of P’s Pod editorial team, unless otherwise stated.