Walking in another’s skin | Inquirer Opinion
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Walking in another’s skin

PENANG—ON the opening dinner of the Consolidation for Peace for Mindanao (COP5), the guest of honor was T.Y.T. Tun Dato Seri (Dr.) Haji Abdul Rahman Haji Abbas, the head of state of Pulao Pinang (Penang Island), and his wife, Her Excellency Toh Puan Hajah Majimor Shariff.

When I commented that Dr. Rahman Abbas was the equivalent of a “governor” in our country, Dr. Michael Mastura, who sits in the MILF peace panel, clarified that Abbas is not a “mere” governor, but the “head of state” of Penang, the island being one of 11 states that compose the present-day Federation of Malaysia.

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Malaysia offers a model of a possible arrangement with the proposed entity being discussed in the ongoing GPH-MILF peace negotiations. As far as I can tell, the MILF has stopped using the term “substate,” or even a “separate state.” At times, I have heard the phrase “self-governed area,” which doesn’t mean the “dismemberment,” much less “secession” of Muslim Mindanao, but rather the grant of actual and stronger autonomy to the Bangsa Moro.

Malaysia offers the model of a nation made up of autonomous states, which share powers with the national or federal government, but are otherwise free to set policies and laws pertaining to their own areas and people.

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Of course, it’s quite a distance from concluding negotiations, signing a peace agreement, and even crafting an arrangement for “power sharing”; and from implementing this arrangement on the ground and in reality, or pacifying the angered or aggrieved and preventing the outbreak of new violence.

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Which is why the horizons set by the COP5 go beyond just finalizing the negotiations and having both peace panels sign the final instrument, but also include the possible “transition period” before the situation stabilizes.

First established in 2006, the Consolidation for Peace, said Universiti Sains Malaysia vice chancellor Prof. Dato Omar Osman, “has become a special medium to support the peace process.” It has brought together a wide range of stakeholders in a peaceful Mindanao and Philippines, while providing space and time for open and honest talk that could pave the way for more substantial developments in the future.

“USM is committed to contributing its expertise in helping ensure the success of this process, thus contributing actively to preserve the future peace and prosperity of all,” added Professor Osman.

Malaysia itself plays a key role in the formal negotiations, since the Malaysian government sits as the facilitator of the peace talks. An international group of government representatives from the United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and from the Japan International Cooperation Agency (Jica), also sits in an International Contact Group, joined by four international NGOs sitting in and observing the talks. Likewise, as requested by both the Philippine government and the MILF, an International Monitoring Team is stationed in different parts of Mindanao with a mandate to investigate and report on any violations of the ceasefire agreement.

With so many friends, in the country and outside our borders, assisting, observing and wishing us well, could peace be very far behind?

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In her reaction paper to a presentation on the possibility or feasibility of constitutional reform (or Cha-cha), Laisa Masuhud Alamia of the Bangsa Moro Lawyers Network quoted a line from the novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” in which one character said that “unless you can walk in someone else’s skin,” full understanding of that person will not be possible.

In her closing remarks, Teresita “Ging” Quintos-Deles, the presidential adviser on the peace process, quoted Laisa noting that this was directed not just at the representatives of the government and the MILF, but at everyone taking part in the COP5. She wished that everyone would have “a moment when you realize that someone else had something new to offer, that it is not just what I’m thinking” that matters. For without that experience of “walking in another’s skin,” participation in this seminar would have been for naught.

Indeed, that is the experience granted by these three days of talks and exhortations, arguments and agreements. While the peace panels face urgent deadlines to conclude their work, finalizing the peace process—and promoting it among all Filipinos and the rest of the world—will take more time and will not happen tomorrow. (Though I do hope it will not take much longer.) But I feel hope surging within me and, I suspect, all those who came here to this island-state, that agreement is not too far off, and in its wake, peace and development, understanding and unity.

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One of the points raised in our breakout group on “Constituency Building,” was the need to overcome centuries of deep-seated prejudice and animosity between the Christian majority and the Muslim minority, as well as the indigenous peoples of Mindanao and elsewhere. We need to see the gentler, friendlier face of Islam, what one of us called the “real face” of Islam, and conduct ourselves with mutual respect. It goes without saying, though, that we shouldn’t sweep under the rug the centuries of discrimination and very real and human grievances that have led to these attitudes. But we do need to break the cycle of grievances and hurts to start on a new road.

Mohagher Iqbal, chair of the MILF peace panel, requested of the gathered participants “not to suppress the aspirations of the Bangsa Moro people.” Grievances, he said, “is like water, suppress it and it can gather force and burst forth suddenly.” It didn’t sound like a warning, to my ears, but rather like a prayer.

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