The good news is that the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) will have “something” within the year, what both parties to the peace negotiations have called a “framework agreement,” and what chief government negotiator Marvic Leonen describes as “a roadmap toward a final peace agreement.”
The bad news—or rather, the more sobering news—is that, in the words of President Aquino’s adviser on the peace process, Teresita “Ging” Deles, “the agreement will be the easy part, the harder part will be the implementation.”
At a dinner with media persons covering the years-long negotiations, Leonen reminded everyone that the peace agreement between the two parties would have to be implemented in an environment where conflicts and violence continue to prevail—not just from such fringe breakaway groups like the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Front (BIFF), but also from groups like the Jemaah Islamiya, Abu Sayyaf, kidnap-for-ransom bands, criminal gangs, warlords—as well as rido or family feuds that escalate into armed conflict. In other words, while the MILF regulars might put down their arms and look forward to integrating into the larger diverse society, they must at the same time confront situations of poverty, displacement, resentments and continuing conflict.
Still, declared Deles, “this is it.” The government, she said, after the signing of the final pact, has no plans or desire to negotiate with a group like the BIFF which, added Leonen, “has found no traction” anyway within the larger Muslim community despite its recent attacks, in what is viewed as an effort to “provoke” the MILF into joining in the fighting (which was resisted), or the government into escalating its response (which didn’t happen).
In the government’s view, they said, the problems posed by the remaining armed groups should be treated in the future as a matter for law enforcers or local police.
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Leonen praised what he called the extraordinary “cooperation” between government forces and the MILF in the face of the BIFF’s marauding. While the military response was “calibrated,” said Leonen, the MILF forces “stood out of the way,” resisting obvious attempts to “get them to react.”
“Remember, in previous times, in the face of such provocation, the military’s usual response would have been ‘total war,’” reminded Leonen. But in this latest instance, “there was discipline on both sides (the military and MILF),” with the armed response measured and adequate to the threats, although in the end, the 6th Infantry Battalion ended up occupying the former BIFF stronghold (since last year) known as Camp Ona.
Inside the camp, soldiers found evidence, including a wheelchair, of the declining health of Umbra Kato, a former MILF bigwig who founded this breakaway group. This has given rise to rumors that the group has come under new leadership.
Notable also is that in the face of the BIFF’s provocation, mass evacuations from the areas that were attacked were kept to a minimum, ensuring that the dislocation of families, which has become almost a way of life for the people in conflict-ridden areas, was not so widespread.
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There are, to be sure, still many “sensitive” issues that remain, waiting for further negotiations and refinement of language.
Among these are the exact ceasefire mechanisms (when and how and how many ex-fighters are to be integrated into the police and military?) and the rehabilitation of affected communities, and the issue of ancestral domain, touching on the rights and entitlements of indigenous peoples in Muslim-dominated areas.
During the start of negotiations, confided Leonen, “sensitive issues were pushed back,” but in the last year, “we began negotiating on the hard points.”
Still quite tight-lipped on the details of the final document, Leonen only conceded that a “transition mechanism” was in the works, stressing that “the [peace] process doesn’t end with an agreement, it only ends when the implementation is satisfactory.”
The “breakthrough,” declared Deles, despite teasing from the journalists, was when the MILF leadership began to “trust in the sincerity of P-Noy.” She added: “They have seen how the President operates. His reforms are not lost on the MILF.”
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What is no longer on the table is the MILF’s previous demand for the creation of a separate “state” or “substate,” Deles said, although she clarified that the agreement would eventually result, at least by 2016, in a new “political entity.”
“Walang golpe de gulat (There will be no surprises),” Leonen promised, adding that in fact the government panel had been making the rounds of Congress to brief legislators on the process and pending “framework agreement.” Local officials in the provinces to be covered by the new “political entity,” as well as officials of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARRM) have likewise been consulted and briefed. Indeed, the governors of the ARMM provinces were even invited to observe the latest round of negotiations in Malaysia.
Of course, the final document, when it does come to pass, will have to go through a referendum and plebiscite. And should someone see fit to question the agreement in court, Leonen declared: “We will defend the agreement together with them.”
“All we have to do in the days remaining is to think out of the box,” said Leonen, “out of the box, but within the Constitution.”