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Lawyering for the MILF?

/ 12:12 AM February 26, 2015

I cringed when, at one point in the final Senate hearing on the Mamasapano incident, Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano glowered at government peace negotiator Miriam Coronel Ferrer and presidential adviser on the peace process Teresita Quintos Deles, and threw them the sarcastic question: “Whose interests are you representing in the negotiations with the MILF (Moro Islamic Liberation Front)?”

One has to be able to summon enough forbearance and charity not to bristle or break down in the face of such verbal abuse. This is the kind of provocative questioning that, instead of making room for cogent arguments, drives reason into retreat. How is one supposed to react when each time you refuse to rush to judgment or form a conclusion on the basis of unverified reports, you are accused of lawyering for the enemy?

These are professionals recruited by President Benigno Aquino III to find a solution to the long-festering armed conflict in Mindanao. Before she joined public service as peace adviser, Secretary Deles headed a peace institute and was part of a vigorous peace movement that grew in the wake of Edsa I. Chair Ferrer is a professor of political science with a rich field experience in postconflict East Timor. Both have solid grounding on peace issues.

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Deles and Ferrer may not be political combatants or courtroom gladiators, but they are no pushovers. I am sure that, if they wanted to, they would have been able to respond to Senator Cayetano’s acerbic interventions with fitting eloquence or dismissive disdain. To their credit, they controlled themselves. Senate hearings are not the right venue to tangle with politicians who like to think of themselves as the voice of the sovereign. The Senate is a seat of power, and the consciousness of that power distorts communication.

To know this is to understand where the government peace panel is coming from. In both the House and Senate hearings, their principal concern has been to rescue the comprehensive peace agreement on the Bangsamoro and the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law from the toxic fallout created by the Mamasapano tragedy. This means, in the first instance, managing the public outrage and hostility resulting from Mamasapano that is now directed against the government’s chosen peace partner, the MILF.

Because of that unfortunate incident, the MILF has been called the vilest names: “terrorist coddlers,” “heartless barbarians,” “duplicitous savages,” and “cutthroats” and “terrorists” who have no right whatsoever to sit at the negotiating table with the government. These inflammatory labels resurrect and encapsulate all the unexamined pejorative beliefs that many harbor against Muslims and the Moro people. To the prejudiced, the video footage of armed men in rubber slippers brutally finishing off with powerful weapons the police troopers that strayed into “their” territory only offers gruesome confirmation of the nature of the feared “other.”

All the doubts and apprehensions about giving more autonomy, more power, and more financial support to a local government run by the Moro people have come to a head as a result of this single incident. As we may note, the decision to be made is increasingly taking a binary form, an either/or proposition: to approve or to reject the Bangsamoro Basic Law as it is proposed.

I am afraid that if such a vote were to be held today, the BBL would be roundly rejected. This is the political quagmire in which the peace agreement with the MILF now finds itself. It is a virtual minefield that must be navigated with extreme caution by the key players from both the government peace panel and the MILF.

Strictly speaking, the MILF has no obligation to defend the BBL before the legislative and judicial bodies of the Philippine government. That is a function of the Office of the President, under whose authority the peace panel operates. The MILF has its own explaining and defending to do before the people of Muslim Mindanao. I doubt if getting a consensus is going to be easy for either party in the light of what has happened.

Be that as it may, I am deeply impressed by the way Mohagher Iqbal, the chair of the MILF peace panel, carried himself at the Senate hearings. He was a picture of wisdom, restraint, dignity and depth. While he projected self-assurance, he never came out as arrogant. He knew he did not have to be there, yet he obliged every question with utmost politeness. He kept his cool, except for that one instance when, in the course of Senator Cayetano’s badgering about Marwan’s purported e-mail to his US-based brother detailing his links to the MILF, he sharply retorted: “It’s not my habit to read other people’s e-mail.”

If the BBL still has some life left to it today, I would credit that mainly to Iqbal, a worthy spokesman not only of the Moro nation but also of all peoples fighting for self-determination. Imagine what it would have been like if, as a matter of principle, he had refused to appear before our legislators. That would have left Secretary Deles and Professor Ferrer to speak for the BBL. Then the two would have had to sound even more like lawyers for the MILF, defending the “enemy” at Mamasapano as a reliable peace partner. I can only imagine how such a spectacle would have driven our politicians to fits of patriotic fury.

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Some commentators cite the so-called “Stockholm Syndrome” (positive feelings for one’s abductors) to explain Deles’ and Ferrer’s refusal to echo the bigotry that characterizes so much of what has recently passed for public discourse in our political institutions. That is a lot of nonsense and an insult to the intelligence and love of country of these two courageous women.

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TAGS: Alan Peter Cayetano, Bangsamoro Basic Law, Benigno Aquino III, Mamasapano, Miriam Coronel Ferrer, mohagher Iqbal, Moro Islamic Liberation Front, Peace talks, Teresita Quintos Deles
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