ILIGAN CITY -- At dawn of August 18 seven years ago, hundreds of Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) fighters attacked Kolambugan and Kauswagan towns in Lanao del Norte to vent their ire over the aborted signing of the landmark but controversial Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD) two weeks earlier.
These twin attacks escalated into a yearlong war in central Mindanao between government troops and MILF forces that drove more than 600,000 people from their homes and communities—the world’s largest displacement at that time.
The war reopened old wounds, and dimmed the hopes for ending decades of Moro rebellion. It took the increased involvement of the international community to brighten the prospects for peace.
And today, these international actors are more enthusiastic at seeing closure to the Moro conflict than the country’s national legislators who are heating up for the 2016 political derby.
“The prize of peace is within reach,” read a July 24 statement from the Third Party Monitoring Team (TPMT), an independent body created by government and the MILF to oversee the parties’ compliance with their agreements.
The TPMT is led by Alistair B. MacDonald, former European Union ambassador to the Philippines.
Meanwhile, the House of Representatives has been grappling with the problem of quorum that renders it unable to continue plenary debates on the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL).
This happens even as time has been fast ticking away for the measure which President Benigno Aquino hoped could be enacted by October.
“While it is difficult for those inside the country to appreciate (the peace process), those outside are enthusiastic,” government chief negotiator Miriam Coronel-Ferrer told Manila-based journalists during a training last May.
Increased international involvement in the peace process after the 2008 conflict came largely as a guaranty mechanism to ensure that the parties fulfill the consensus reached in the negotiating table.
In September 2009, the parties established the International Contact Group (ICG) composed of representatives from four foreign governments and another four from civil society.
The ICG comprised state members Saudi Arabia, the United Kingdom, Turkey and Japan; and non-state entities The Asia Foundation (TAF), Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, Muhammadiyah and Conciliation Resources. TAF has moved to the TPMT and was replaced by the Vatican-based Community of Saint ‘Egidio.
Hence, apart from Malaysia, as facilitator, eight more independent entities have full access into the fray of the negotiations, increasing its chances of success.
In the later stages, international support was also employed to help the parties implement the various aspects of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB). One is the creation of the Canada-led International Commission on Policing (ICP) which outlined recommendations on the structure and functioning of the Bangsamoro police.
Another is the Turkey-led seven-member Independent Decommissioning Body (IDB) that is now overseeing decommissioning of MILF combatants and weapons in step with the achievement of agreed political milestones. Still another is the Swiss-led Transitional Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC).
According to Coronel-Ferrer, foreign governments are also keen to see peace take root in Mindanao to help isolate extremism and fundamentalist ideologies.
Downed by populism
The MOA-AD sought to define in concrete terms the Moro people’s homeland over which they will exercise self-governance through a political entity that will still be part of the Philippine state. It was a key document that took three years and eight months to muster.
Even hardline secessionists have high regard for the MOA-AD. The late Ameril Umra Kato, founder of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, told the Inquirer in 2009 he supports the MOA-AD “even if it’s not (for) independence or separation” as it would “lessen the political and economic dominance of the Philippine state over the Moro people and their homeland.”
But the impending deal was regarded differently by the poorly informed general public who harbored fears it can cause the country’s dismemberment. Driven by this fear, politicians styling themselves saviors of the republic trooped to the Supreme Court to thwart it.
Initialized by the chief negotiators, the document was ready for signing on Aug. 5, 2008 in Kuala Lumpur in the presence of diplomatic dignitaries but the Supreme Court restrained government from inking it.
“If only there could also be a Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) on that armed conflict in Mindanao...,” legal scholar Soliman Santos Jr. wrote in a Philippine Law Journal commentary piece in 2009.
Amid mounting public pressure, the unpopular President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo backed down from the deal and loosened up on the legal effort in the High Court. By October, the Court declared the MOA-AD unconstitutional, stoking the raging hostilities in Mindanao.
Similar context and pattern
“It was unfortunate that President Arroyo took the populist road in deciding the fate of the MOA-AD,” recalled Candido Aparece, spokesperson of the Mindanao Civil Society Organizations Platform for Peace (MCSOPP).
Because it took government and the MILF one year to decide to silence their guns and resume talking, the peace process got caught up in the dynamics of national politics when the 2010 elections beaconed. The same pattern is emerging today with the effort to enact the BBL in Congress.
Just like in 2008, many Filipinos still lack understanding about Mindanao’s history and socio-political dynamics hence they have a low appreciation of the nuances of the peace process. This is also the reason for the persistent bias against the Moros.
This makes the process vulnerable to attack by politicians who pander on the public’s fears and prejudices in order to score popularity points.
Aparece likens the tragic January 25 incident in Mamasapano, Maguindanao to the MOA-AD debacle in 2008 in terms of its impact to peacemaking in Mindanao.
“Both incidents rocked the peace process, even raised public doubts about its intended outcome. But thanks to the steadfast commitment of President Aquino, the process is kept afloat even as it sailed through rough waters,” Aparece noted.
Whatever fate the peace process has in the remaining months of Mr. Aquino, the next President will play a crucial role in forging it forward, said Basilan peace activist Allan Pisingan of Bantay Ceasefire.
“Beyond the BBL, there is a host of mutually agreed measures that need to be carried out by both government and the MILF,” Pisingan stressed.
While the four personalities leading the presidential opinion polls uphold the broad goal of achieving peace with Moro rebels, each one has distinct takes on the more concrete issues, like the BBL.
Both Sec. Mar Roxas and Vice President Jejomar Binay were involved in efforts to strike down the MOA-AD before the Supreme Court in 2008. Roxas was then a Senator and Binay was Makati mayor.
Today, Roxas has vowed to pursue the peace process along the direction already set by President Aquino, although he’s still silent on other related issues. Binay has hit the BBL in the process of venting his tirades against the administration after failing to bag Aquino’s anointment for President.
In her report on the Senate’s probe of the Mamasapano incident, Sen. Grace Poe chided government peace negotiators for imbibing a “wanton excess of optimism” in the process of forging a political settlement with the MILF that, in turn, became basis for the BBL.
While she was widely lauded for taking an independent stance on the tragedy, many were also surprised at her prejudging the proposed BBL as it was not the subject of the Senate probe.
Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte, the lone Mindanawan in the running as top pick for president, has issued varying remarks about the BBL, at one time describing it “a crazy idea.”
“Of course, nothing is still definite beyond these public postures as presidential wannabes adjust their anchors to the fluidity of the political situation,” explained Aparece.
One thing is certain, for now. The Kolambugan townsfolk will continue to hold annual observances dubbed “08.18.08” to memorialize the dawn attack, and by extension, the MOA-AD debacle.