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Arguments on the framework

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I must disagree with two esteemed colleagues of mine in these opinion pages, who have written skeptically or adversely on the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro. Like many of the newspaper’s readers, I share the Inquirer’s own view that the preliminary peace pact represents the best chance of lasting peace in Mindanao in our time.

But first, an ungrudging acknowledgment: That ex-ambassador Bobi Tiglao and the new Inquirer publisher, Dean Raul Pangalangan (and even constitutionalist Fr. Joaquin Bernas, SJ), all have serious concerns about the agreement signed last week in Malacañang tells me that the criticism against it does not always follow predictable patterns—and that I must remain open to the possibility that my own views may be mistaken.

Bobi and Dean have written a total of three columns on the new agreement; it isn’t possible to respond to every single point they raised, so I will focus on one characteristic argument they have each made. I hope to prove that, in each case, the argument is erroneous.

Let me start with Bobi, who wrote on Oct. 18 that the framework agreement was “clearly a roadmap for the republic’s dismemberment.” As I understand it, his central argument flows through three stages: the “crucial concept” is the use in the agreement of the term Bangsamoro without qualifications; this entity “has all the attributes of a nation-state”; it is defined “not as an entity under the republic.” I too am somewhat vexed by the agreement’s use of “asymmetric” to describe the “relationship” between the national government and the Bangsamoro government. (It was the first question I asked chief government negotiator Marvic Leonen when I had the chance.) But I think Bobi misreads the evidence on the attributes of a nation-state. (I will get back to this point at the end.)

In my view, however, the argument most characteristic of Bobi’s perspective on the agreement is the one he makes in his first paragraph: “The pact calls for the creation of an MILF-controlled state within a state—precisely its main aim in the past decades. Bannered by the Islamic invocation ‘In the Name of God, the Beneficent, the Merciful,’ the document even reads not as a pact between a sovereign secular state and a rebel group but as an MILF manifesto.”

But in fact every single text produced through the peace negotiations with both the Moro National Liberation Front and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front begins with an Islamic invocation—including the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain put together by the Arroyo administration he served. (The MNLF texts, including the 1996 Final Peace Agreement with the MNLF, bear a slightly different prayer: “In the name of God, the Omnipotent, the Merciful.”) This use is standard diplomatic practice, but Bobi turns it into a scare tactic. Having forged the frame of an “MILF manifesto,” he then proceeds to read the agreement as such.

I would not describe Dean’s position on the framework agreement as hostile; perhaps actively skeptical would be the best approximation. I would sum up Dean’s concerns as a series of related arguments about language and power. In his Oct. 12 column, he warned against Orwellian motives pulsing through the language of the agreement. “The so-called Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro uses words to conceal rather than reveal.” In his Oct. 19 column, he expands on his concerns. “The Framework says little but the public has been conditioned to believe it says everything.” “Most importantly, the key Framework provisions each refer to an “Annex” that does not exist.” “This language is so slippery.”

In my view, however, the argument most characteristic of Dean’s perspective on the agreement is where he senses the most danger: “Even more sinister, notice a strange clause that appears not once but twice in the Framework: the Bangsamoro rulers may ‘block grants and subsidies from the Central Government.’”

But in fact the word “block” is not used as a verb, but as an attributive noun. The first of the two appearances Dean notes is in Section IV, Item 3: “The Bangsamoro will have the authority to receive grants and donations from domestic and foreign sources, and block grants and subsidies from the Central Government.” That use is truly head-scratching. But Item 7 clarifies things: “Fiscal autonomy shall mean generation and budgeting of the Bangsamoro’s own sources of revenue, its share of the internal revenue taxes and block grants and subsidies remitted to it by the central government or any donor.” In other words, and as a recourse to a good-sized dictionary shows, a block grant is an unrestricted grant of funds from the national government. Dean’s skepticism leads him, unfortunately, into a language trap.

Back to reading the evidence. Bobi seizes on ambivalent phrasing in the agreement, in Section VIII, Item 6, and reads it as full of meaning. “In phased and gradual manner, all law enforcement functions shall be transferred from the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) to the police force for the Bangsamoro.” In Bobi’s view, this means Bangsamoro is a nation-state because it will have “its own armed force, disguised as a ‘police force.’”

But he sees a similar ambiguity in the “decommissioning” clause (Section VIII, Item 5) and reads it as meaningless: “The MILF shall undertake a graduated program for decommissioning of its forces so that they are put beyond use.” He concludes: “There is no such provision for disarmament in the Aquino-MILF pact, merely a vague statement.”

I guess vague is what we make of it.

jnery@inquirer.com.ph/johnnery.wordpress.com

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