There was a festive, optimistic mood in Malacanang Palace earlier today as President Benigno S. Aquino III rolled out the red carpet for an erstwhile enemy of the state, Murad Ebrahim, Chairman of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
Chairman Murad entered the Palace for the first time to sign the historic Framework Agreement between the Philippine government and the MILF, which paves the way for the establishment of a new autonomous political entity called the Bangsamoro. Najib Razak, the Prime Minister of Malaysia, and Ekmelledin Ihsanoglu, the Secretary-General of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), along with a number of other foreign and local dignitaries, witnessed the event.
The last time the Philippine government and the MILF had something as close to a final peace deal as this was when the government of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo forged the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain with the secessionist group in 2008. The said agreement, cloaked in secrecy, would have created for the MILF a totally autonomous entity capable of seceding in the future, and was therefore met with overwhelming opposition from almost all political and civic sectors in Manila and Mindanao. It was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, leading to a brief resumption of hostilities between the two parties
Unlike the 2008 experiment, however, Manila’s leaders and opinion-makers are generally supportive of this Framework Agreement. With few exceptions– like former President Joseph Estrada, who waged an all-out war against the rebels in early 2000s, Mayor Celso Lobregat of the Christian city of Zamboanga, former Moro rebel leader Nur Misuari, and a few extremists like Umra Kato of the renegade Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Movement– political and civic leaders and observers on both sides, and the international community, are hailing the agreement as a breakthrough– the first step towards an end– some already say the end itself— of the forty-year-old Moro insurrection.
Regular readers would know that this blog has always been skeptical of the peace process. This blog’s stance betrays a conservative bias: It has always believed that the MILF doesn’t have the mandate to represent the Bangsamoro people, if ever there’s even one in the first place. But alas, the President, who formulates and executes policy, does not share these views; and this blog can only wish him success in his chosen track. And indeed, one can say that this Framework Agreement is a reasonable success, and that there’s reason to be cautiously optimistic.
Firstly, as other more competent observers have already pointed out, the Framework Agreement seems to draw many of the lessons from the previous attempts to find peace in Mindanao. Unlike the 2008 agreement, which was negotiated without taking the interests of other affected stakeholders into consideration, the Framework Agreement, published immediately upon announcement by the President, is being done with full transparency. Chief negotiator Marvic Leonen, former Dean of the University of the Philippines College of Law, even encourages public scrutiny of the document, and for everyone to get involved in a national debate on the peace process.
Also, unlike the 2008 agreement, which staked its success on changing or amending the Constitution, and could have allowed the government to implement the deal sans a plebiscite, the creation of the Bangsamoro under the Framework Agreement does not necessarily require a constitutional amendment. Moreover, it does not create an entity simply for the MILF to govern: The Congress must approve the Bangsamoro Basic Law first, plebiscites be called second, and the MILF, which has committed to transforming itself into a political party, would have to seek its constituents’ mandate in an election.
Secondly, unlike Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who obviously used the Bangsamoro question as a means to extend her grip on power, President Aquino seems to have genuine desire to win peace for the region. He had demonstrated this by appointing Dean Leonen, a human rights lawyer and academic known for his advocacies for indigenous people’s rights, as chief negotiator, and by meeting Chairman Murad in Tokyo despite knowing that doing so would draw political flak at home. It was obvious that the President, through Dean Leonen, was negotiating in good faith.
Was the MILF, for its part, negotiating in good faith? This is difficult to determine, but Dean Leonen claims that forty-years of armed struggle has made the MILF leadership quite pragmatic. Observers say that the MILF sees political settlement now as the only option, and that there is a sense of urgency as MILF leaders grow old: They know that now is their only chance. The same observation has been said of Palestinian leader Mamoud Abbas.
What we know is that, perhaps as a result of President Aquino’s good intentions and Chairman Murad’s pragmatism, both sides have agreed to make considerable concessions. Manila’s official acknowledgement of the Bangsamoro identity, for instance, was unprecedented. It is either bold or recklessness, depending on one’s perspective; yet it was perhaps the key that allowed the MILF to make a more painful concession: The abandonment of its quest for independence, which was its raison d’etre in the first place.
“History has shown that war cannot resolve this conflict. Neither can we defeat the Armed Forces of the Philippines,” says the chief negotiator of the MILF, Mohagher Iqbal. Indeed, this reality is reflected in the Agreement, too: The MILF has committed to a gradual decommissioning of its armed forces so that it would “be put beyond use.” The Philippine government was sensitive enough to allow the MILF some dignity by opting not to use the word “disarmament.”
There was, however, another player in this process whose intentions have always been under suspicion: Malaysia. There had been a long history of antagonism between Manila and Kuala Lumpur, starting from the Philippines’ support for Indonesia’s efforts against Malaysia during the konfrontasi period, through President Ferdinand Marcos’ botched attempt to invade Sabah, and Kuala Lumpur’s alleged sponsorship of the Moro insurrection to keep Manila busy. President Aquino himself was said to be skeptical of Malaysia’s role at the beginning, but he eventually agreed, after Kuala Lumpur heeded his demand to replace one Malaysian facilitator who was seen to have been biased for the MILF back in 2011.
Unlike the 2008 agreement, which arguably gives the proposed Bangsamoro entity the legal framework, and the ability, to secede and even join the Malaysian federation, the Framework Agreement firmly places the new Bangsamoro entity under direct supervision of the President and the Congress, and has almost no ability to conduct economic diplomacy, thereby ruling out any Malaysian conspiracy. Moreover, perhaps the President himself recognizes that, unlike other Malaysian leaders, Prime Minister Razak has a personal commitment to a global movement for political moderation, indicating, in the words of Undersecretary for Presidential Communications Manuel L. Quezon III, his genuine “effort to find common ground,” which, on the part of Malaysia, is a “very recent phenomenon.”
But having said all these, both the Philippine government, the MILF, and their international partners would do very well not to raise expectations too much. They must not forget that difficult questions remains unanswered, and more concessions would probably be required, before peace can finally be achieved.
For instance, while the Framework Agreement promises to be inclusive, the provision granting the MILF most of the seats in the Transitional Council that will write the Bangsamoro Basic Law is questionable. The MILF would do very well to exercise utmost prudence by appointing people representing all stakeholders involved, including the Christians and the Lumads and even the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), in the Council.
Secondly, who would be in command of the envisioned Bangsamoro police force, which would be in charge of the new autonomous entity’s internal security? The Constitution designates the President as the commander-in-chief of “all the armed forces of the Philippines,” yet the Framework Agreement emphasizes the civilian nature of this police force; would the Basic Law give control of this force to the Bangsamoro government and not to the President of the Philippines? The concern of some sectors that a Bangsamoro police force could develop into a modern armed forces that will give the Bangsamoro government the ability to eventually secede is a valid one, and must therefore be addressed.
Thirdly, while the Agreement talks of justice as a foundation of lasting peace, and has laudable provisions on righting historical injustices against the constituents of the Bangsamoro, there is no provision on seeking justice for victims of war crimes committed by both sides. As a friend asks, would those responsible for the beheading of several Philippine soldiers at Al-Barkah, Basilan be brought to justice?
Raising expectations over this Framework Agreement in order to increase the momentum of the peace process is understandable. The MILF has to sign a final peace deal with Manila before President Aquino’s term ends, as an apparently looming Estrada-allied Binay presidency may diminish hopes for a favorable settlement. President Aquino, on the other hand, needs to cement the Philippines’ image of stability to keep the country’s renewed economic momentum going. Both sides, however, must be sober enough to recognize that the Framework Agreement would work only if it accomplishes what it promises to do, which is to include all ideas and to address the concerns of all stakeholders throughout the peace process. This is certainly not an easy task; and one that would, and should, take time.
Therefore, while there are reasons to be optimistic, it might be too early to expect too much. As a friend said, “if there must be peace, it must be the peace of the just, and not simply the absence of war.”