Peace premises

Peace follows war.  That is the logic of any peace agreement.  It comes after a period of conflict, seeking to erase the basis for war. Yet what we have in Mindanao today seems to be the exact opposite. A peace agreement has provoked renewed conflict.  What happened? What lessons might we draw from this turn of events?

First, I believe that we became so complacent about Southern Mindanao that we forgot there was a war on hold in that part of the country.  Many were unaware that Mindanao was generally quiet because the dominant Moro armed group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, had agreed to explore the option of peace.  This amnesia has been partly caused by the fact that since 2001, when the framework for the negotiations with the MILF was signed, we have been hobbled by national issues centering on the legitimacy of the Arroyo presidency.

Second, the protracted negotiations had slid into a routine of closeddoor technical meetings that tended to minimize the necessity for continual consultations with significant publics.  That is why the whole affair and the document resulting from it acquired the stigma of something sneaky and conspiratorial.  Instead of welcoming it as a breakthrough, nearly everyone took the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD) as an intriguing clue to an undisclosed script.  This doesn’t do justice at all to the painstaking and substantive work that went into the crafting of the document.

Third, the response from the Arroyo government was far from reassuring.  Instead of defending the controversial provisions of the MOA-AD point by point, the regime’s spokesmen quickly retreated and took the easy road of saying that the terms of the agreement were not final until Congressional action, a plebiscite, and a Charter amendment made them so.  This situation was aggravated when the regime again invoked executive privilege to justify its refusal to release the final draft agreement.  And now it is withdrawing the MOA-AD.

Fourth, a visit to the MILF Internet website clearly shows a healthy debate between moderates and radicals, between pragmatists and skeptics, within the Moro community.  These are more or less the same divisions that exist in the Filipino community.  Indeed, consensus is never easy, and securing it by persuasion is precisely a test of leadership.  But both the government and the MILF have shown an astounding lack of readiness to rein in the hotheads on both sides.  And so, one wonders whether they produced the MOAAD in good faith as the key to enduring peace in Mindanao, or from the start they meant it to be nothing more than a device to achieve other things.

What might we learn from all this?

First, I think we need to constantly remind ourselves of something very obvious: that a peace agreement is an alternative to continuing conflict.  Many of us appear to have forgotten that the controversial Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD), which recognizes the legitimacy of a Bangsamoro homeland, was a product of a prolonged negotiation in a period of truce.  We avoided war because we agreed to talk.

Second, those who sit at the negotiating table cannot take for granted their mandate to negotiate.  Such mandate goes beyond the formal legalities of representation in the case of the government, or mere possession of an armed force, in the case of the MILF. It has to be renewed and validated periodically, through quiet consultations, amid the shifting tides of public opinion.  My sense is that our leaders at various levels failed to prepare the public.

Third, while peace talks are best conducted in quiet surroundings, shielded from the pressures of the mass media and agitated communities, we should never underestimate the value of regular media updates and consultations with stakeholders on crucial points. Such talks are so sensitive that they require a constant balancing between discreetness and transparency.  One way of achieving this is by inviting a couple of credible citizens with a deep interest in peace to observe the talks. If the agreement is reasonable and aboveboard, the same individuals can be harnessed to explain to the public its premises.

Fourth, nothing perhaps is more crucial to the success of any peace effort than the credibility of the negotiating parties themselves. This is a question of basic trust.  If the people cannot trust the leaders who make decisions in their name, how can they possibly support any agreement that involves something as fundamental as the territorial and political integrity of the nation?  If Ms Arroyo was really keen to leave a legacy of peace in Mindanao, she should have known that retired Gen. Hermogenes Esperon Jr. was a poor choice for the job of chief negotiator.  They suffer from the same credibility deficit.

Finally, a message to the MILF leadership.  From the start you would have known that Ms Arroyo’s mandate to negotiate for the Filipino nation was a big question mark.  But you went ahead and dismissed this as an internal problem of the Filipino people, believing that what was important was to advance the talks and get the government and the major international powers in the region to affirm your premises.  I think you have succeeded in doing that.  But all of that is now being nullified by the mounting distrust for Ms Arroyo, and by the public fury over the barbaric acts committed by MILF Commanders Kato and Bravo.

Peace ultimately belongs to the idealists; it is too precious to leave it entirely in the hands of pragmatists.


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