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The peace agreement with the MILF

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The peace agreement with the MILF

/ 02:40 AM March 27, 2014

A realistic way to understand the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro that is due to be signed today amid tremendous rejoicing is to view it as a concrete plan for establishing a stable political order in Muslim Mindanao. Its chances of succeeding are bolstered by the fact that it was painstakingly drawn up by representatives of the Philippine government and of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

Producing a document like this is no mean achievement. The discursive context that frames it is surely far more instructive than the text itself. The negotiators on both sides were not only dealing with each other; they were also balancing what was reasonable and just with what they thought their own people could accept. The government panel was constrained by basic constitutional issues—would this agreement not violate Philippine sovereignty? Similarly, the MILF panel had to deal with the legitimacy question—is it defending or is it selling out the historic rights of the Moro people?

But, even as we hail this momentous breakthrough, we cannot underestimate the hurdles that the next phases of the process pose. The Filipino people have to give their consent to the agreement, through their elected representatives, by passing a basic law creating an autonomous Bangsamoro political entity. Though not a separate state, this entity is going to be a self-governing community entrusted with greater powers than a local government unit. In turn, the MILF will have to secure acceptance of the plan through a plebiscite that will be held to ascertain the will of the people in “the proposed core territory” of the Bangsamoro.

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These are only two points in the legalization process. There could be a prolonged debate in Congress. Along the way, some groups could go to the Supreme Court to question the constitutionality of the whole process. On the Moro side, other armed groups in Mindanao that do not recognize the MILF leadership could, at any point, stage a reprise of Nur Misuari’s suicidal show of force that wreaked havoc on Zamboanga City last year.

In a world flattened by global processes, I am simply awed by the continuing power of religion and ethnicity as a basis of differentiation. Nation-states everywhere are fast losing their capacity to manage the future of their peoples amid so much complexity. In view of this, what promise can autonomy, or even secession, hold for those who look upon it as a cure for persistent poverty? I’m afraid nothing much except as a vital first step toward establishing a functioning political order. Autonomy is not a panacea.

But, on the bright side, a peace agreement creates its own momentum and its own fresh advocates. Among the latter are the governments and organizations from various countries—particularly Malaysia—that kept their faith and lent support whenever the talks hit rough patches. That kind of global solidarity and goodwill is an exceptional resource that a nation can tap in its quest for solutions for its own manifold problems.

Having come this far, we must give the MILF everything that it needs to complete this project. Indeed, we could not have chosen a better partner. Its leaders manifested wisdom and will in the course of their negotiation with the Philippine panel. They not only showed that they could rise above demagoguery; they actually risked losing their standing among their people when they shunned the easy path of going back to war in the wake of the Supreme Court’s rejection of the earlier deal forged with the Arroyo administration.

But, we must patiently address apprehensions at home. Some people see this agreement as a prelude to the Philippine republic’s dismemberment. As patriotic as this sentiment may be, it is not rooted in reality. The sovereignty of the republic has never been completely established or accepted in many parts of Muslim Mindanao. That is why the presence of the Philippine state there has always had to be backed up by its armed forces.  This uneasy state of affairs, which is akin in its effects to foreign occupation, has excluded this region and its people from the circuits of the modern world. It has kept the people poor and insecure.

Successive generations of Filipino politicians know this only too well. Some have tried to resolve the impasse by crushing the Moro armies. But others know better than to seek the annihilation or total subjugation of the Moro people. The usual route has been to stabilize Muslim Mindanao by coopting its traditional leaders into the country’s own corrupt political system. Others have chosen to pursue peace by negotiating accords with the dominant armed group of the moment. The ideal situation would have been for the different armed groups in Muslim Mindanao to negotiate as one entity. But their fragmentation is precisely part of the problematic reality we are dealing with. This is why peace in Mindanao has remained as elusive as it has been improbable.

Theoretically, once the organic law is passed, uniting Muslim Mindanao under a single autonomous government becomes the main responsibility of the MILF. But, just as it was foolish to let the beneficiaries of agrarian reform sink or swim on their own after they got their land, so would it be a disgrace if we thought the MILF could build its own political community without the Filipino people’s active support and wish to make it succeed.

The world rarely sees governments and rebels come together to talk things over, clarify differences, rebuild trust, and arrive at a consensus. We are a bright solitary spot in a planet wracked by war. We cannot fail.

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TAGS: Bangsamoro, Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro, MILF panel, Moro Islamic Liberation Front, Muslim Mindanao, Nur Misuari, peace agreement
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