In March 2012, the negotiating panels of the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front were holding their 26th exploratory meeting, to further discuss the principles and shared commitments that would govern any peace agreement they could forge in the search for a just and lasting solution to the conflict in Mindanao. Six more meetings would ensue over the course of seven months before the two panels were sufficiently convinced that they had a workable plan. On Oct. 15, 2012, they signed a framework agreement.
A year ago yesterday, on March 27, 2014, the government and the MILF signed the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro, formalizing the vision of a new autonomous entity in Mindanao that would be created by a congressional act, approved by the people through a referendum in the involved areas in the region, and administered by a local government duly constituted and empowered under a proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law. In exchange, the MILF, which had waged a three-decade war against the government—but which in February 2011 announced that it would no longer pursue secession and was instead interested in working out a system of autonomy for its homeland—agreed to lay down its arms and transition to civilian rule. The protocol for the decommissioning of MILF firearms was signed by the two peace panels just last Jan. 29.
But by then the peace process was in danger of being swept aside by a totally unforeseen incident: the deadly clash in Mamasapano, Maguindanao, four days earlier between Special Action Force commandos of the Philippine National Police and gunmen belonging to the MILF, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters and private armed groups. The SAF commandos had entered Mamasapano in pursuit of wanted terrorists, with no coordination with the MILF in violation of governing protocols, and in fact no coordination with the military. As many as 44 SAF men, 17 Moro rebels and three civilians were killed in the firefight. In its wake the peace process shuddered to a halt, and the proposed BBL was denounced by an emotional public as a sellout document that would legitimize a rebel group perceived as suing for peace but actually ever-girded for war to carve out a piece of the republic for itself.
Much of the blame for the sorry mess has been laid on President Aquino who, by relying primarily on his old friend, the then suspended PNP chief Alan Purisima, to oversee the police operation, was incontestably negligent and careless. Two months after Mamasapano, and with public discontent over his handling of this political crisis still bubbling over, he has since taken full responsibility for “any suffering and any tragedy that may be borne of our desire for lasting security and peace,” and also sought, “with abiding humility,” the public’s “deepest understanding.”
But the flak from Mamasapano has all but derailed the peace process. The military’s war on the BIFF, which began on Feb. 25, has displaced at least 120,000 civilians, including indigenous peoples, in certain areas in Mindanao. A four-year-old child has died of dehydration in an evacuation center in Mamasapano. And the proposed BBL is in limbo, its passage uncertain as the opposition to the rapprochement with the MILF has reached fever pitch.
To be sure, many of those who object to the BBL do so out of a sincere belief that nothing good would come out an agreement with a rebel group that had seemed ready to betray its peace partner at a moment’s notice, and despite signed agreements already on the table. Their anxieties are understandable, and deserve to be addressed by the government and the MILF.
But it’s also true that Mamasapano has unleashed virulent strains of opposition among some people—the ignorant, bigoted kind that demonizes the Moro people as deceitful and untrustworthy, and the plainly opportunistic kind that has seen in Mr. Aquino’s frustrating style of governance the chance to land blows on him and his administration, with the BBL serving as the unfortunate collateral damage. Sometimes the two—nativist prejudice and naked political ambition—combine, producing the sight of senators of the realm abandoning reason and restraint and resorting to crude warmongering.
It’s time to put the peace process back on track, to refocus attention on the promise of peace offered by the BBL. If the document needs refinement, then let Congress, and perhaps the Supreme Court later, do their work. It would be adding insult to the tragedy of Mamasapano to shoot down the peace process out of pique at the President or wariness toward Muslim Mindanao. Mamasapano demands justice, but so do the people of Mindanao who have had to live with strife for so long.
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