Cautiously optimistic.

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.”


  1. thewalkingencyclopedia

    Well said, Kuya. There are still many issues to tackle in order to have that lasting peace everybody is dreaming of. It’s just alarming that the Philippine Government has allowed MILF to use its “former” troops as the nucleus of its police force. This may yet lead to another Private Army that any sitting Politician could use to deflect possible replacement during elections. This can be used also as a tool for secession when the “right” time come.

    I have few questions though. Is there a need to amend the ARMM Provision in the 1987 Constitution? Who will be the one to decide whenever there are investors who want to put investments in the region, will it be the Phil Gov’t or the Bangsa Moro?

    Since the framework has already been signed, will it be to the advantage of the Philippines that we become an Observer State with full status in the OIC? Or a member-state perhaps? Is it possible that the seat of the Islamic group from the Philippines in the organization will be absorbed by the Philippine Government thus giving us voice in the Conference? Will they give their seat to the government?

    Makes me think.😀

  2. The Nutbox


    Thanks for the comment. You raise very interesting questions.

    First of all, I’m not sure if the government of the Philippines (GPH) has allowed the MILF forces to be the nucleus of a Bangsamoro police force. I think the agreement calls for a graduated disarmament of the MILF’s military wing, the Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces. The composition of the police force remains open for negotiation, although I think I’ve read somewhere that Iqbal said that the MILF would push for Bangsamoro control over the police force.

    Your second point, regarding constitutional amendment, I think that would be a debate among lawyers. Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago says there must be an amendment, while Dean Leonen, a strong candidate for Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, maintains there’s no need for one. Congress would just replace the current ARMM Organic Law with a new one, if it approves the Basic Law crafted by the Transition Commission.

    Your third point is quite interesting. Indeed, should the Bangsamoro be represented in the OIC? That’s a question that OIC and the Bangsamoro would have to determine. But should they deem that the Bangsamoro needs a seat, then that seat would have to be held by the Central Government since the Framework Agreement and the Constitution is clear that the Central Government retains all powers relating to foreign relations.

    • The Nutbox

      Regarding the police force, the Framework Agreement says the police force would be responsible to BOTH the Bangsamoro and the Central Government.

      From Article VIII (Normalization) of the Agreement:

      “3. As a matter of principle, it is essential that policing structure and arrangement are such that the police service is professional and free from partisan political control. The police system shall be civilian in character so that it is effective and efficient in law enforcement, fair and impartial as well as accountable under the law for its action, and responsible both to the Central Government and the Bangsamoro Government, and to the communities it serves.

      “4. An independent commission shall be organized by the Parties to recommend appropriate policing within the area. The commission shall be composed of representatives from the parties and may invite local and international experts on law enforcement to assist the commission in its work.

      “5. The MILF shall undertake a graduated program for decommissioning of its forces so that they are put beyond use.

      “6. In a phased and gradual manner, all law enforcement functions shall be transferred from the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) to the police force for the Bangsamoro.

      “The Parties agree to continue negotiations on the form, functions and relationship of the police force of the Bangsamoro taking into consideration the results of the independent review process mentioned in paragraph 4.”

      • thewalkingencyclopedia

        Thank you, Kuya! This clarifies everything regarding the Police provision. I hope that both parties will follow these provisions when they signed the framework agreement. And we the Filipino people would like to believe that they signed in good faith.

  3. Lionel P

    Sorry to burst your bubble bro, but do you honestly think that Najib’s “personal commitment to a global movement for political moderation” would change Malaysia’s interests in Mindanao?

  4. A. R. S.

    ”if there must be peace, it must be the peace of the just, and not simply the absence of war.” – In Philippine Politics, Politics on October 15, 2012 by The Nutbox

    Very apt.

  5. Anna

    Very astute… On the whole, history has shown that any peace agreement signed with only one party to the detriment of other stakeholders always creates problem, eg., peace agreement with Corsica, peace agreement with Sinn Fein that merely created another monster with a more aggressive “provost sinn fein” to name only two. A peace agreement with the MILF will buy the Republic time to re-structure itself no doubt about it, and buy us hope that the other groups that have been sidetracked will eventually die. But I am not optimistic. Nur Misuari may be a ‘spent force’ but the younger generation of MNLF fighters are not and they are armed. Moreover, they have turned to China. The Bangsamoro peace deal is far from being a done deal.

  6. Rb

    Cautious optimism is what I feel right now as well. Great job contextualizing the issue JJ. May this lead to a lasting peace.

  7. The Nutbox

    E-mail comments from veteran journalist Gil Santos:

    1. Since this is a trust-and-confidence building venture for all the participants in the pre-signing and signing period, then both the Philippine government and the MILF MUST NOW intensify the information campaign for all their constituents to understand and appreciate the real meaning of this agreement. It is an extraordinary document now that must be HONORED by ALL sides of this conflict (which incidentally, to me, started with the Mindanao for Independence Movement of Cotabato Governor Ugtog Matalam in the 50s and not 40 years ago only. Marcos’ martial law pronouncement merely ushered the entry of Khadaffi’s Libya arms-and-financial support and intensified the long-simmering conflict into its boiling point. Let’s not forget the cultural factor here which throws the problem back into the colonial days centuries back).

    2. That information campaign, in will take at least five (5) years of financially-supported effort of both sides. That will only minimize (NOT guarantee) the probablity of trigger-happy members of both sides to start firing again. A mere expression of INTENTION to stop the shooting war is never a guarantee that the violence will not erupt again. And that requires dealing with ALL heirs./followers of the war victims from both sides.

    3. That campaign requires transparency and “sincerity” from all the participants so that the desired public support for peace can be obtained. This is the toughest unavoidable part of this job. That means explaining the agreement’s meaning, short/medium/long-term impacts to the people–in simple and understandable terms/language. This will be very tricky because the two major sides of the agreement will always invoke “security” in the entire processes. That is normal as the experienced newspersons who have witnessed history will always say. And the true newspersons will always ask incisive questions all sides will find irritating, pesky or even brand them as “irrelevant” just to avoid answering them

    4. The local political and international geopolitical factors must also be considered in the entire process, now that this agreement has been on the world media and earned the initial support of the United Nations. Hopefully as experts have said on the internet: this should now be a sample (to press other nations with separatist problems, particularly in the Southeast Asian region) to follow for the elusive peace goals..

    5. All these above translate into one sustained effort from all sides regardless of changes–by popular elections/selections or deaths by whatever cause(s)– in the leaderships of all the participants in the agreement.

    Of course anyone can argue that these foregone sentences are ideal and peace can not be attained overnight. Of course, as long as humans exist and conflicts are hard facts of life everyone must cope with. That is no brainer! So challenge everyone to do their part, and deliver peace with justice (both highly relative words!). We have no alternative!

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