All the difference
P-Noy (President Benigno Aquino III) is on a roll. He has made a couple of brilliant moves in barely two weeks.
The first was to deliver an inspired Sona. What made it particularly inspired, and inspiring, was that he delivered it in Filipino, which completely apart from what he had to say was a message unto itself. By speaking in Filipino, he made it clear that he wasn’t talking first and last to the foreigners, the elite, or even Congress itself, he was talking first and last to Juan de la Cruz. He was reporting to his Boss.
That Sona was a game-changer. After that, the specter of “KKK” (“kaklase, kaibigan, kabarilan”) disappeared. After that, the charges about the President being weak and truant disappeared. In its stead arose an image of a president having a mind of his own and a goal in his mind. In its stead arose the bane of the utak-wangwang and the possibility of casting it aside by hewing to the daang matuwid.
His detractors were right to say of course that he needed to go beyond this and actually punish the corrupt and uplift the poor. But they were wrong to suggest that this by itself did not contain substance. Clearing the air is as substantial as clearing a piece of land. Earning trust is as substantial as earning a good credit rating. Giving the people confidence is as substantial as giving land to the landless and jobs to the jobless. If not more so.
The second was to meet with Moro Islamic Liberation Front chair Murad Ebrahim in Japan.
Nobody talked about it, nobody expected it. P-Noy quietly flew out of the country, and before you knew it, you had those pictures of him and Murad in a hotel room discussing the future of Muslim Mindanao splashed all over the newspapers and TV.
The usual suspects were, of course, quick to pounce on it. “Secrets may be maintained between lovers, but there should be no secrets between the President and the Filipino people,” Edcel Lagman said. “We cannot support a peace agenda whose parameters are nebulous and whose terms of engagement and possible agreement are concealed.”
It contrasted with the sentiments of those who were actually affected by the talks. Before P-Noy made the offer to meet with Murad, said MILF vice chair Ghadzali Jaafar, most of their fighters thought nothing of the peace process. “(Many) were doubtful of the sincerity and seriousness of the Aquino administration. In the 14 years negotiating with the Philippine government, many leaders of the MILF and the Bangsamoro had lost hope.” The meeting between P-Noy and Murad “gave new hope for an end to war.”
What made P-Noy’s move inspired, and inspiring, was that, like his Sona in Filipino, his meeting with Murad, quite apart from what they had to say to each other, was a message unto itself. The whole of Mindanao and not just its Muslim section had reason to be hopeful. (The local officials themselves who felt the brunt of the MILF attacks after the agreement to create the Bangsamoro collapsed raved over the meeting.) It said the effort to turn the MILF swords into plowshares—or whatever the Islamic metaphor for it is—was a priority of government. It said the very head of government was willing to go boldly where others had not gone before to bring peace to a troubled land.
True enough, there should be no secrets between the President and the Filipino people. But Lagman should have discovered that principle much earlier, specifically when his favorite president, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, sprung a nasty surprise upon the nation. That was a couple or so years ago, when the Filipinos woke up to realize Lagman’s favorite president was ceding a huge part of their territory without their consent—indeed with the consent only of foreign powers like the United States, the Organization of the Islamic Conference and Malaysia—to a group of secessionists.
The reason the public had no problems with P-Noy’s meeting with Murad wasn’t just that he made it clear he wasn’t there to agree to anything or sign anything. It was also, and primarily, because, the pubic trusted him. He wasn’t there because he needed the MILF to legitimize an illegitimate rule, because he needed the Americans to legitimize an illegitimate rule, because he needed other countries to legitimize an illegitimate rule. He wasn’t there because he needed to explore the possibility, notably with America’s help, or benign indifference, to cling to power. He had no agenda other than peace.
By meeting with Murad face-to-face, one-on-one, mano-a-mano, P-Noy also sent another powerful message to the public quite apart from what they talked about. That was that at the end of the day, in the scheme of things, when all was said and done, peace in Mindanao was something for the Philippine government and the MILF to make. Peace in Mindanao was something for the Philippine government and the MILF to forge. It was not a matter for the Americans, the OIC, the Malaysians, or any other country to shape. It was not a matter for anybody else to determine. External intervention, foreign meddling, hadn’t made things better, they had made things worse. It was time the two parties talked to each other. It was time the two parties made their peace with each other.
Doubtless, the road ahead is not matuwid and clear, it is full of twists and turns, it is full of pitfalls and detours. The problem is not a simple one, the knot is not easy to untangle. The conflict has been there for a long time, and it will continue to be there for some time, if not for an equally long time. The distrust has developed over the centuries and seeped into the crevices of the public mind—that of Christians and Muslims. But P-Noy at least has taken the first step—this time forward and not backward.
That makes all the difference.
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