Groundbreaking | Inquirer Opinion
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Groundbreaking

PENANG—IT has been called a “groundbreaking event.” Indeed, even veteran observers of the peace process in Mindanao—which has been unfolding for over 20 years now, through different administrations, peace panels and even three outbreaks of armed conflict—say the Consolidation for Peace for Mindanao, now on its fifth iteration, has managed to pull off what seemed an impossibility just a few years ago. And this is to bring together in one seminar all possible sectors and stakeholders, with the possible exception of the military, in the continuing search for lasting peace in Mindanao. More specifically, it seeks to encourage dialogue among all parties in the effort to reach an agreement to bring an end to hostilities between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

Lending urgency to this meeting of minds is that both the government panel and the MILF are facing pressing deadlines. After the November 2011 informal meeting between both panels, GPH chairman Marvic Leonen said he hoped that both sides would sign an agreement “within the first quarter” of this year. And as has been pointed out, there are only 74 days left before the end of March.

The reason for the Aquino administration’s self-imposed deadline, I am told, is that the President is all too aware that after the mid-term elections, much of his political capital would have been spent, and it would be so much more difficult to harness political will and favorable public opinion to shepherd what promises to be a controversial agreement through the shoals of controversy.

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Indeed, everyone among the participants here, I would think, agrees with the assessment that a negotiated agreement in Mindanao is both urgent and important.

And though the MILF, represented here by Mohagher Iqbal and members of the panel, has confessed to feeling “intense pressure from within and without” to come to a final agreement, they have also made clear that, having laid all (or most) of their cards on the table, they are still waiting for the government’s response to their demand for a form of self-governance, although they seem to have stopped using the term “state within a state,” or a sub-state.

One problem, to my mind, is that, due to a previous agreement with the Moro National Liberation Front, there already exists a distinct area for Muslim autonomy: the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao. The ARMM has an existing government structure, although its officials are at the moment appointees of the President. Within the ARMM are local government entities—provinces, cities and towns—with elected officials answerable to their constituents and to the national government. There are also representatives (both district and sectoral) who speak for their constituents in the legislature.

What is still unclear is how the proposed Bangsa Moro (or Moro Nation) structure will relate to the existing political and governance structures in Muslim-dominated areas of Mindanao. Also, how will the present officials, who won their mandate through democratic elections, accept the resulting structure and their modified (if ever) roles within it?

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Which is why it’s good that governors of the ARMM provinces are attending the seminar, along with their sons, younger brothers or other relatives holding other positions in local government, and who may very well represent the rising generation of leaders.

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Not a few of them have expressed the need for more and more frequent “consultations” with the government negotiators and the office of the peace adviser, to keep them updated on the positions being laid out in the talks. And after the talks are over, hopefully soon, these same officials could be harnessed to lend their support for the initiatives agreed upon.

They are, after all, the leaders who will have to “sell” the negotiated settlement—whatever form it takes and whatever its contents—to the people in their areas, who are in a very real sense the true stakeholders in the negotiations.

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Being kept in the dark, I would assume, could only result in growing frustration and imagined fears, so by sitting down in a conference room, openly exchanging ideas, experiences, fears and hopes, I would hope that everyone gets a clearer picture of the process and the issues at stake.

We have been told that, as a matter of confidentiality and to encourage frankness in the discussions, whatever is discussed during the next few days must be kept private and not attributed to individuals. I hope this sufficiently explains the rather opaque statements made in this column.

It has been made clear that the members of both the MILF and government panels are not here in the seminar to negotiate, or rather, to engage in formal negotiations. But in their interactions, drawing in the thoughts and inputs of other stakeholders, there may very well be approaches explored that do not occur in the cold and stiff confines of negotiating rooms or in strategy sessions.

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It has been said time and again that “negotiations do not take place in a vacuum.” The speed, conduct and results of the talks are inevitably influenced by outside events, including political considerations. But it is also fortuitous that the negotiations can be influenced by “ordinary” folk who are just as interested, just as concerned, just as involved as government officials and fighters in the evolution of the peace process. We are all learning from history, reaping lessons from the past to form the shape of the future.

TAGS: featured columns, Government, MILF, Military, Mindanao peace process, opinion

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