Mindanao peace talks

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Government panel chair Marvic Leonen’s statement of April 24 on the “GPH-MILF Decision Points on Principles as of April 2012” was a good summation of the import and nature of the document, particularly his point that “it should be read as a memorandum for the parties of the general directions of the substantive negotiations.”

His summation may, however, turned out to be not completely shared by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). In any case, one significant point he presented was the concrete application of the principle of transparency, of course within limits, with the release of the document and its intended use for engagement of the public in the peace process.

The document is definitively a positive step forward but it is also indicative that there is really still a long way to go. Let there be no mistake about this or any undue euphoria again (like after the breakthrough Aquino-Murad meeting in Tokyo in August 2011) about this interim breakthrough.

Substantive progress

The opening or introductory paragraph of the document is an important guide to it. It clarifies that it is not complete and to a large extent not final. It not only avowedly helps guide further negotiations but also demonstrates to the anxious public some substantive progress in the talks. The latter—lest another round end without sufficient progress—appears to be the major impetus for the release of the document as early as Day 1 of the three-day talks from April 24 to 26 in Kuala Lumpur.

Apparently, the panels were not ready for the remaining nitty-gritty discussions on power-sharing and wealth-sharing on the agenda. At the same time, it was clear that the panels already had a draft of the 10-point document probably several months back, as they could not have just drawn this up on the morning of Day 1.

They evidently could not previously finalize and agree on it. The nagging concern about a possible “stalemate” and the apparent encouragement from others concerned were part of the push that led to its release.

Unacceptable

For me, the most significant paragraphs in the document are 2, 3, 8 and 10. Of these, paragraph 2 is the most significant consensus point substance-wise. It indicates or lays the ground for a real breakthrough of “a new autonomous political entity in place of the ARMM [Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao]” that breaks away from the “unacceptable status quo.”

The only logical direction of this is a  form of self-determination and self-governance qualitatively higher than the level of the ARMM, a constitutionally mandated level, not just a Republic Act No. 9054 level.

There is no clear consensus yet though that this qualitatively higher level is the MILF-envisioned special asymmetrical semi-federal relationship which would definitely require a constitutional amendment—and for that matter for any arrangement qualitatively higher than the constitutional level of the ARMM which is tied to the status quo of the national unitary system of government (the old formula under the Constitution and its jurisprudence) that precisely has to be breached in Muslim Mindanao.

This is at the core of the expectedly tougher nitty-gritty issues in further negotiations on power- and wealth-sharing.

The government panel’s statements at a press conference on April 25 that “the two sides were talking about an autonomous political entity that would meet the requirements of the Constitution” and that “replacing the ARMM with a new entity would require getting Congress to pass a law” (rather than the more difficult process of a constitutional amendment) remain to be borne out by the MILF side.

Continuity

Paragraph 3 is the assurance long sought by the MILF on “the continuity of negotiations in the context of agreed documents.” This was a matter that MILF peace panel chair Mohagher Iqbal had pounded on, with a recap of key agreed documents in the history of the negotiations, in his opening statement at the 27th exploratory talks on April 24.

He highlighted from the “Tripoli Agreement on Peace” (2001) this paragraph under its “Security Aspect,” thus: “The negotiation and peaceful resolution of the conflict must involve consultations with the Bangsamoro people free from any imposition in order to provide chances of success and open new formulas that permanently respond to the aspirations of the Bangsamoro people for freedom.”

It is significant that Leonen cited the 2010 “Declaration of Continuity of Peace Negotiation” under the (Aquino-hated) Arroyo administration and the statement thereon of his predecessor on the government panel, Ambassador Rafael Seguis.

Significant to continuity was Leonen’s statement that the “parties agreed to put these points in writing to fix their positions in the current stage of the negotiations” as part of his explanation of the context of the 10-point document. In other words, it would appear that further negotiations can no longer diminish but can only enhance or add to the already achieved consensus points.

Paragraph 8 on the expansion of the jurisdiction of the Shari’ah courts and the new political entity’s competence over the Shari’ah justice system would mean a fuller autonomy or self-governance—not just executive and legislative but also judicial.

Charter amendment

This again may entail a constitutional amendment since the 1987 Constitution, Art. X, Sec. 18 refers to “the basic structure of government for the [autonomous] region consisting of [only] the executive department and legislative assembly” and allows for “the special courts with [only] personal, family, and property law jurisdiction consistent with the provisions of this Constitution and national laws.”

Paragraph 8 also goes to the core of the Islamic aspiration since Shari’ah is Islamic law, where there is, among other things, no principle of inviolable separation of Church and State but, on the contrary, the integration of religion and politics. Note, on the other hand, Leonen’s statement that “(t)he autonomous political entity envisioned is a secular political unit.” One wonders whether there is a common government-MILF vision on this.

Religious freedom

Paragraph 10 on basic rights is, of course, significant in terms of constitutional rights and international human rights “already enjoyed” being definitely a part of the legal regime of the new political entity, which should be assuring to non-Moro sectors. At least three of the enumerated specific rights (in subparagraphs b, j and k) deal with religious freedom.

Also significant are the enumerated specific rights pertaining to women’s political participation (subparagraph g), and on “pursuing democratically political aspirations” (subparagraph e) which has electoral implications. And quite significantly to be specifically enumerated, the “(r)ight to seek constitutional change …” (subparagraph f). This is not usually seen as a “basic right.” But, as they say, we will take it, especially in relation to the needed Charter change for peace.

The much-highlighted consensus in paragraph 4 on “a ministerial form of government” deals with precisely that, “form,” not substance.

Interim MNLF deals

The document might be likened to the annual (1993, 1994 and 1995) interim agreements of the government and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) during its peace negotiations with the government. The interim deals were, however, much more detailed and extensive in collating the consensus points as they developed with each annual round of Jakarta talks until the Final Peace Agreement in 1996.

There might be some positive learnings also from that process—like the system of support/working/mixed committees, including the extensive tapping of Bangsamoro professionals, experts and resource/technical persons—that would help with the necessary work in further government-MILF peace negotiations.

The MILF must also realize that not everything which the MNLF did was wrong or bad, and that recognition or credit should also be given where it is due. This is important for MILF-MNLF unity and Bangsamoro solidarity.

Crudely formulated

Lastly, for now, I find the title of the document, “Decision Points on Principles,” a bit quaint or crudely formulated. It looks like it should instead be “Principles for Decision Points,” i.e. principles or even more precisely consensus points to guide further negotiations toward a complete and final agreement.

Several titles of key government-MILF peace documents tend to be similarly quaint or crudely formulated: “General Framework of Agreement of Intent” (1998) and “Declaration of Continuity of Peace Negotiation [no “s”]” (2010). Then in the middle of the text of the 10-point document, one suddenly sees in paragraph 6.c an improperly placed parenthetical “footnote.” It is as if the panels made no room for improvement in crafting, style and editing for fear that it would open up the document to substantive changes.

There are more examples of quaint and crude formulations in the main body of some key peace documents esp. from 2001 up. For example, Iqbal in his opening statement quoted from the “Tripoli Agreement on Peace” (2001) this paragraph under its “Rehabilitation Aspect,” thus: “The observance of international humanitarian law and respect for internationally recognized human rights instruments and the protection of evacuees and displaced persons in the conduct of their relations reinforce the Bangsamoro people’s fundamental right to determine their own future and political status.”

We get the point but, what does the “Rehabilitation Aspect” and “the protection of evacuees and displaced persons in the conduct of their relations” have to do with “reinforc[ing] the Bangsamoro people’s fundamental right to [self-determination]”?

Right to self-determination is governed indeed by “internationally recognized human rights instruments” but not by the International Humanitarian Law, that is stretching it too far. All told, a better job language-wise and document crafting-wise—if we can speak of learning negative lessons from the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain—can still be done.

(Soliman M. Santos Jr. is a human rights and international humanitarian law lawyer, legislative consultant and peace advocate. He has written several books on the Mindanao peace process. He is currently a municipal judge covering Nabua, Bato and Balatan in Camarines Sur.)

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