The improbable task of negotiating peace

What does it mean to talk peace with someone you’ve been fighting? In the beginning, you review the reasons that brought about the conflict. In the course of doing this, you start to allocate blame for what has happened. That is natural. Soon, you realize that, rather than be stuck in cycles of unproductive recrimination, it is better to move on by stressing the reasons that led you to the peace table. You forge a plan to eliminate the causes of conflict and to build an enduring partnership based on justice.

Doubts and suspicions are never completely stilled; they continually permeate such talks. Quite often, hardliners from either side take the center stage, and, as a result, the talks bog down prematurely—until, through back channels, they are picked up again. Various forms of confidence-building measures are then proposed to keep the talks going, and to move them from one level to another.

At a crucial point in the talks with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, for instance, President Benigno Aquino III broke protocol by making an unscheduled trip to Japan just to meet the MILF head Ebrahim Murad. After this, the MILF dropped all remaining traces of a secessionist vocabulary to make it easy for the Bangsamoro quest to be reconciled with the nonnegotiable premise of Philippine sovereignty.

Such moves can be costly in political terms.

P-Noy risked losing political capital when he agreed to meet with Murad in order to speed up the talks with the MILF. To many observers, that brief meeting in Japan was the clearest sign that the Philippine government was recognizing the MILF as a “belligerent” power that is conferred rights under international law. On the other hand, by explicitly dropping the quest for an independent Moro state, the MILF risked losing the legitimacy it built over many years as the authentic voice of the Bangsamoro.

Peace negotiations are always a touch-and-go affair. The negotiators have to constantly draw on a reservoir of patience, personal goodwill, and prudence to get the conversation moving. On one hand, you never really know when the other party is just riding on the talks to achieve short-term gains—to secure the release of prisoners, or to entrench a ceasefire arrangement with no commitment to forge a just and enduring peace accord. At times, you may find yourself asking if the nice people you’ve been talking to are not themselves the hapless victims of shrewd manipulators from their side. Indeed, you might begin to wonder if your own principal still trusts you, or still shares the original vision behind the mandate you accepted as a peace negotiator.

The recent Senate hearings on the Mamasapano incident gave us a glimpse of the complex terrain that peace negotiators must navigate. At one point in the hearings, MILF chief negotiator Mohagher Iqbal was asked why it took so long for the ceasefire order to be honored by the MILF combatants on the ground. He said that he could not provide a ready answer until his group completed its own investigation. I heard him say: “These are military issues. My responsibilities in the MILF have to do with political affairs.” It was a reasonable response. But, it failed to appease his interrogators, who kept asking him if the MILF leadership had any real control over its armed elements.

Even so, Iqbal came out as a credible figure in these hearings. He spoke as someone who enjoyed the full confidence of the MILF chair and of the organization’s entire political leadership. That is due in large measure to the fact that none of his MILF comrades spoke ill of him or ever questioned his fidelity to the Bangsamoro cause. Not even after he denounced in the strongest terms possible the manner in which many of the Special Action Force commandos were killed in that Mamasapano cornfield. I held my breath when he said that the perpetrators of this brutality were worse than terrorists. He knew that many were from the MILF.

I can’t help contrasting this with the way some of our political leaders have treated the peace negotiators on the government side. Like Iqbal, presidential peace adviser Teresita Quintos-Deles and government peace panel chief Miriam Coronel-Ferrer had to pick up the mess created by a bloody encounter nobody wanted. But, unlike their MILF counterpart, they have been pilloried for refusing to join the chorus of righteous indignation that has formed in the wake of the tragic deaths of the 44 SAF commandos. Their call for sobriety and prudence has been portrayed as a lack of empathy for the fallen police officers. For failing to echo the outrage that has engulfed the media and the streets, and for suggesting that the government might have violated the existing agreements when it did not coordinate the operation against Marwan with those charged with overseeing the ceasefire, their patriotism has been put in question.

But, do we know what their exchanges with their MILF counterparts are like when they are among themselves, particularly since Mamasapano? Do we know exactly what they feel deep inside? Do we know how they felt after seeing that their own principal failed to inform them of a top-secret police operation that put at risk the very project they were assigned to work on? I would have understood it if, at that point, they resigned in disgust.

What I cannot understand is why the President’s supposed allies are demanding that he fire his peace negotiators. If they mean what they say, shouldn’t they ask him instead to cancel all standing agreements with the MILF, withdraw the Bangsamoro Basic Law, and stop talking to the MILF until the latter admits its culpability for Mamasapano and surrenders the combatants who figured in that encounter? Isn’t that what the call for the ouster of Deles and Ferrer amounts to?

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