The long journey to peace

The “Framework agreement” jointly drawn by the negotiating panels of the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front is a significant advance in the protracted quest for peace in Muslim Mindanao. But, even as we bank on the inherent infectiousness of peace agreements, we should be wary about expecting too much too soon.

The agreement, as I see it, is a commitment by the two parties to pursue a common track leading to a final agreement, and to oversee its realization in the form of governance structures appropriate to an autonomous political entity. It marks the crucial points in a journey toward enduring peace, and invites the rest of the world to join and lend its goodwill to the pilgrims who have embarked on this precarious trip, even as there is no assurance that they will reach their destination. It offers us a glimpse of peace that is attainable in our time.

Its announcement at this early stage signals the start of the hard work of popular consultation, of securing a broad consensus, and incorporating refinements in the comprehensive agreement to be announced soon. The government will try to explain to the public via the mass media, and to the various institutional stakeholders of the state via Congress, what a final agreement requires in terms of the most crucial issues—power-sharing, wealth-sharing, scope of the autonomous region, constitutional implications, etc.

The MILF will try to explain the advantages of the planned “new autonomous political entity” to its “Bangsamoro” constituency, which includes not only the communities under the control and supervision of the MILF, but also those that are under the leadership of groups like the Moro National Liberation Front and other breakaway armed secessionist movements. They will also need to bring into these consultations the non-Muslim communities—both Christian and non-Christian—that lie within the designated autonomous region.

The outcomes of all these consultations at various levels must somehow find their way into the design of the basic law that Congress has to approve. If such a law can be accommodated within the existing framework of the Constitution, then that would greatly simplify matters. But if it will entail amending the Constitution, as it most likely will, we hope the nation will calmly consider the possibility and not reject it out of hand.

None of these tasks is obviously going to be quick and easy. Though the initial objections have been muted, stumbling blocks are bound to be erected on both sides of the fence. I believe everyone is hoping that a strong enough peace momentum will have been generated by now to propel the process to its next crucial stages. Indeed, there’s probably no other way to engage the participation of the larger national and international community in this complex and formidable effort but to mark and celebrate every breakthrough, no matter how small.

One of the major weaknesses of the 2008 peace agreement that called for the creation of a “Bangsamoro Juridical Entity” had been precisely the perceived lack of transparency in its crafting and the suddenness with which it was announced. In my view, these were procedural lapses rather than major substantive defects. It would be interesting to compare the final agreement that will emerge from the current process with the previous one that was summarily opposed by the nation’s leading politicians and subsequently thrown out by the Supreme Court. My hunch—and I don’t mean this as a criticism—is that the differences would be fundamentally semantic.

The 2008 Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD) was not a carelessly crafted document that some of its critics had made it out to be. It was, I still believe, a thoughtful attempt to offer a formula for peace and stability in a region whose relationship to the national state has been continuously contested. It did not spring out of nothing; it grew out of the consensus built from previous talks.

The perceived weaknesses of the MOA-AD stemmed primarily from the fact that the government panel was negotiating in the name of a president whose credibility and legitimacy had sunk to the lowest conceivable point. After 2006, when Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo tried to impose a state of national emergency, every major agreement that her administration attempted to enter into with any entity became automatically suspect. GMA’s presidency was so beleaguered that it could not focus on anything beyond ensuring its survival till 2010.

Contrast this with today’s conditions. There’s a new leader in Malacañang who enjoys some of the highest trust and approval ratings in the nation’s political history. But, more than this, even at the risk of being called reckless, he has demonstrated a strong resolve to end the conflict in Mindanao by agreeing to meet with the leader of the MILF outside the country. This has given the government negotiators the kind of mandate that inspires confidence in those with whom they deal. Unlike his predecessor, P-Noy has not hesitated to stick his neck out to manifest his unwavering personal support for initiatives that otherwise could be struck down before they are explained.

It is wonderful to see that other countries have greeted the breakthrough in Malaysia with profuse praise. But to say we are almost there would be to raise public expectations to unrealistic levels. Old biases survive and remain unexamined. To some of our countrymen, every little concession to the Moro leadership is tantamount to treason. It may greatly enrich their sensibility if they read more about the history of Mindanao and its peoples.