By Ibrahim Canana

In all the news reports on the aborted talks between the MILF and GRP panels which were supposed to have taken place in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on December 15-17, 2007, the MILF had been consistent in saying that its panel of negotiators decided to cancel the meeting because the GRP reneged on the consensus points and agreements mutually crafted, agreed on, and signed by the two parties both at the technical working group (TWG) and panel levels.

The aborted December talks between the MILF and the GRP would have been the second full-panel meeting since exploratory talks were suspended in September 2006 over contentious issues related to the territorial strand of the Ancestral Domain Aspect of the MILF-GRP Tripoli Agreement on Peace of 2001. Exploratory talks (the 14th) resumed in November 2007 after a breakthrough was achieved with the two panels finally hurdling the obstacles which caused the impasse in September 2006. Many expected that the December meeting, the 15th Exploratory Talks, would be smooth sailing. That the Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) on Ancestral Domain was set for initialing by the two parties at this meeting was a certainty that everybody in the homeland and in the international community expected and awaited. What transpired, however, is more serious than the impasse in 2006. At least in 2006 the panels were able to meet and argue and declare a deadlock; in the recent ‘meeting’, there simply was no meeting at all.

According to our sources, the MILF panel considered it a serious offense – nay, a betrayal – on the part of the GRP panel and its principal, Malacaòang, to have departed from the letter and spirit of the MILF-GRP Tripoli Agreement on Peace of 2001 so much so that it opted to cancel the talks to dramatize its vehement protest over the matter. And this is clearly articulated in the official press statement that the MILF panel released to the media as well as by the revelations of MILF officials and panel members in subsequent public forums. The MILF has made it clear again that it would rather not sign an agreement than sign a bad agreement at all.

In contrast, the GRP has not been quite forthright in explaining the cause(s) of the cancellation of the Kuala Lumpur talks. Instead, it has been issuing nebulous statements to downplay the significance of the recent standoff in the peace talks abroad. Secretary Eduardo Ermita, in a statement to the media in December 19, attempted to divert blame on government by recycling the old argument on the problem of MILF and MNLF unity. Earlier, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo raised the issue of the constitution as the framework for any peace agreement with the MILF even as she voiced out the opinion that she wants the peace process in Mindanao to continue. This was parroted by Secretary Jesus Dureza, her presidential adviser on the peace process.

If Arroyo’s pronouncement were to be taken seriously, this brings back the peace negotiation to zero. Or so it seems. Retrospectively, when they decided to resume the peace talks in 2001 after the Estrada all-out war, the MILF and the GRP had arrived at a compromise that the Philippine Constitution should not be made a framework for negotiation and neither should the issue of Bangsamoro independence be an agenda in the negotiating table. This compromise made it possible for the two parties to craft and ink the MILF-GRP Tripoli Agreement on Peace on June 22, 2001 which became the ‘mother of all agreements’. As such, this Agreement charted, forged and directed the path of the peace process toward a resolution of the root cause of the conflict in Mindanao that would be to the satisfaction of the parties involved as well as in conformity with current international trends in resolving sovereignty-based conflicts.

What really happened in Kuala Lumpur? This is what many people now ask.

Greatly distressed by the unfortunate turn of events, we were impelled to ferret out the truth.
The MILF was set to finalize with the GRP the MOA on Ancestral Domain with the GRP. There are twenty-nine (29) consensus points arrived at by the two parties at the TWG level as well as other subsequent agreements crafted, agreed on and signed by the panels relative to Ancestral Domain and its four strands (concept, territory, resources and governance). These consensus points and agreements are drawn up in a matrix and are supposed to be translated into MOA form to be signed by the MILF and the GRP panels. The December 2007 meeting was arranged routinely by the Malaysian facilitators for the two parties to reconcile very minor issues and approve a common draft of the MOA after which an initialing of the document by both panels would follow. Official signing was to be held in January 2008 which would also inaugurate the resumption of the formal talks suspended on February 11, 2003 (as a result of the Arroyo all-out war against the MILF) and the beginning of panel discussion on the Comprehensive Political Compact which is scheduled to be ready for approval by August 2008.

In short, no hassle was expected in the December 15th Exploratory Talks. Of course, if the talks proceeded the usual exchange of opinions and comments would have taken place. But that is all. No acrimonious debate was anticipated because there was no need to. Everybody was supposed to come home happy and satisfied. All the major contentious issues had been practically resolved in the 14th Exploratory Talks and what remained to be done was for the two Panels to agree on the format, style and language of the draft which contains nothing more than what had been already agreed on, and then initial it to make it official and ready for signing in the resumption of formal talks in January 2008. This was to be the scenario, which, if it were followed, would have made the MILF panel members enjoy their ‘Id ul Adha celebration in Kuala Lumpur and the GRP panel members their Christmas and New Year more merry and joyful with their loved ones.

But, as things turned out, this was not to be the case. Some ‘super geniuses’ in Arroyo’s cabinet spoiled the fun by throwing a ‘monkey wrench’ into the whole process. Suddenly, out of the blue, the GRP Panel produced several different versions – one after the other – of the MOA. The MILF draft, which the two panels previously agreed on as the working draft, was set aside. Extraneous elements were introduced into the GRP drafts in clear violation of the spirit and letter of the MILF-GRP Tripoli Agreement of 2001. Corrective drafts were made by the GRP but each new draft was worse than the previous.

Despite this outrageous, unacceptable move by the GRP to veer away from the agreements and renege on its commitment, the MILF panel allowed one whole day – the eve of the meeting – for the GRP to adjust its latest draft to the MILF draft document which, as previously agreed on, would be the working draft and which contained all the signed consensus points and crafted agreements. Had the GRP panel done so in conformity with what had been agreed on earlier, the talks would have been held as scheduled by the Malaysian facilitators. And everyone would have gone back to their respective homes to enjoy the holidays.

The GRP panel, however, was unable to submit a new draft that conformed to the requirements of the signed consensus points and agreements. Only the President and the cabinet, the GRP panel helplessly admitted to the Malaysian facilitator, could make the necessary changes to the draft. It is for this reason that the MILF panel, after consulting the MILF Chairman and the Central Committee, decided to abort the talks because it would have been useless to sit down across the negotiating table from the other party and dialogue with a blank wall. The intransigence of the GRP in the meeting would have ensued into an inevitable acrimonious debate between the two panels that would have exacerbated the already tense situation. And this is what the MILF panel wanted to avoid. In the MILF’s view, the negotiation is not a Christmas party but neither should it be a pugilistic match.

Looking at the developments objectively, it appears that the series of events which led to the aborted talks in Kuala Lumpur are more than what meets the eye. The scuttling of the talks was premeditated. The GRP drafts were designed precisely for the MILF to reject them and thus delay the talks if not abort them. Everything was the result of meticulous planning which perhaps even the members of the GRP peace panel is not aware of or the MILF panel for that matter. There is a sinister game plan at work here, and from all indications people high up in government are behind it. There could only be one primary motive underpinning this despicable act to spoil the peace negotiation as it reaches almost the finish line. And this primary motive is dictated by vested interests – vested interests, cunningly hiding behind the facade of national interest, which would like to see the colonial status quo perpetuated in Mindanao and Sulu and the bloody conflict it has spawned over the decades.

At the heart of this game plan is the ‘MNLF card’. It is not by sheer coincidence that almost at the same time that the MILF and the GRP were about to formalize their agreement on ancestral domain and begin the negotiation on the Comprehensive Political Compact, the move to revive to life the failed GRP-MNLF peace agreement comes to the fore. It is not also by sheer coincidence that after years of deafening silence, Saiful Islam, the son of the Libyan strongman, Muammar Qaddafi, suddenly arrives in Manila, pays a visit to Malacaòang, and urges the MILF and the MNLF to unite. Unite under what and for what? The MNLF-GRP 1996 Final Peace Agreement?

Libya’s role in this new game plan should not be dismissed nonchalantly given the fact that Libya, together with Indonesia, backed the application of the Philippines for observer status in the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC).

These unraveling developments may also shed some light on why there is this silent move to replace Malaysia as the facilitator to the talks. Malaysia is doing an excellent job as a neutral facilitator and mediator, but to the vested interest groups in Philippines society and in the government who want to retain the status quo, this is dangerous. So Malaysia has to be booted out of the peace process.

The MNLF, whether its leaders and members realize it or not, are being used as pawns to derail the MILF-GRP peace process and prevent it from reaching its desired goal of redressing the historic and current grievances of the Bangsamoro people and thus addressing the root cause of the conflict in Mindanao. By reviving the GRP-MNLF 1996 Final Peace Agreement, which was crafted within the framework of the Philippine Constitution, the GRP is now manipulating the MILF-GRP peace process to ensure that any ‘final peace agreement’ with the MILF would be in conformity and/or fused with, or integrated into, the same GRP-MNLF 1996 Final Peace Agreement. This should explain why this ‘dead’ agreement, i.e. the GRP-MNLF 1996 Final Peace Agreement, is being given a new lease on life by this government that had heretofore consigned it to oblivion and for which reason former MNLF Chairman-cum-ARMM governor Nur Misuari mutinied and is now in indefinite detention.

This is the logic behind the statements of government officials such as Jesus Dureza and Eduardo Ermita who insist that no two separate Bangsamoro homelands can exist in Mindanao and Sulu. Ermita went even further by implying that the GRP finds it difficult and perhaps impossible to negotiate with the two Moro fronts and that the latter should therefore unify.
This is also the logic behind why Arroyo issued a statement to the media that the negotiations with the MILF shall proceed within the framework of the Philippine constitution.

Parenthetically, I cannot imagine why a piece of document drafted by fallible humans can be elevated to the status of sacredness equal to, say, the Bible by the very same Filipino political and economic elite who themselves brazenly violate or change it when it serves their purpose but guard and invoke it zealously when it comes to the Moros who only want their freedom back and their right to determine their future. While other countries no longer hold the same myopic view with regard to their constitutions, the rulers of the Philippine nation-state have become so fanatical about their constitution. That is why they could not institute meaningful changes that would stop the country from falling further into perdition or, for that matter, arrest the mass exodus of disenchanted Filipinos to foreign lands. It amazes me no end that despite the fact that foreign and local surveys indicate that the Philippine nation-state is going to the dogs, the rulers in Manila pretend that the country is still a ‘paradise’. If it were indeed a ‘paradise’, it is a ‘paradise’ lost. And I sympathize with the Filipino masses who have taken the hard path of revolutionary struggle to regain this ‘lost paradise’ turned to hell by the greedy and corrupt Filipino ruling elite and their foreign imperialist partners-in-crime.

But going back to the recent development in the peace process, what is the truth behind these media blitz and play of words by the highest officials of this country?

The problem with the Filipino colonialist rulers is that they invariably think that the Moros are all stupid and can be bribed into acquiescence and subservience if the price is right. They believe that the Moros cannot see through a deception even if it stares at them in the face. They are dead wrong.

This is an example. In a recent Mindanao forum where Secretary Dureza was reportedly a speaker, a Muslim participant questioned the former on the appropriateness of allowing foreign and local mining companies to enter Lanao del Norte and exploit the province’s mineral and metal resources which the MILF-GRP agreements have established to be rightfully owned by the Bangsamoro people. Without batting an eyelash, Dureza answered that that would not be a problem because a small percentage of the profit would be apportioned to the MILF leaders so they would not complain. This illustrates the fact that government officials have very low regard for the Moros let alone the MILF leadership and consider them corruptible regardless of whether they are mujahideen or not.

Since peace talks with the GRP began in 1997, the MILF is clear on one very crucial point: the negotiation must focus on the basic question of how to solve the Bangsamoro Problem. It is in this light that the MILF entered the arena of peace negotiation and has since been guided by the sole purpose of addressing the root cause of the conflict in the negotiating table. Attempts had been made and are being made to entice MILF leaders to ‘moderate’ their stand or even join the government but all of these were to no avail. The MILF leadership remains firm in its jihadi and revolutionary commitment to the cause of the Bangsamoro people, Alhamdulillah. This commitment is the legacy which the late Amirul Mujahideen, Shaykh Salamat Hashim, left to his successor, Al Haj Murad Ebrahim, current Chairman of the MILF, as well as to all those who are engaged in the Moro struggle for freedom from Philippine colonialism.

Ermita insists that the MILF and the MNLF unite so that government could address their collective concerns. Ferdinand Marcos, Ermita’s late boss, also said the same thing. However, today this statement is based on the wrong premise because the MNLF no longer exists as a revolutionary front since the signing of the MNLF-GRP 1996 Final peace Agreement and thus cannot speak for the Bangsamoro people. Ermita glossed over the fact that the MNLF had been assimilated into the Philippine nation-state system and its leaders and members have become officials of the government. They swore allegiance to the Philippine Constitution. Its armed force likewise had been integrated into the Philippine military and its former fighters are now serving as soldiers of the AFP, many of whom fought the MILF in the two all-out wars. So how can Ermita claim, in effect, that the MNLF is at par with the MILF which has rejected cooption and is now still negotiating with the GRP? To bestow on the MNLF the same revolutionary status that the MILF now possesses, Ermita is now declaring that the GRP has to negotiate with the MNLF. But this is tantamount to saying that a dog has to ‘negotiate’ with its tail. This is pure hogwash.

Indeed, why would Ermita and his ilk allow the GRP to negotiate with a group whose head, Nur Misuari, is now its helpless prisoner while other MNLF leaders are well ensconced in government positions? There is no sense to this stupid circus being played right before our very eyes unless one realizes that such a charade is designed for a devious purpose. And that is to derail the genuine negotiation between the MILF and the GRP.

It goes without saying, therefore, that the two Bangsamoro homelands that Ermita and Dureza are talking about are nonsense. There is only one homeland for the Bangsamoro people – not one for the MNLF and not one for the MILF. The ‘MNLF homeland’ (ARMM) that they aver the MILF also claims had been sold down the river by the MNLF in exchange for political positions and economic privileges. What the MILF is now trying to do is to rectify the grievous blunder committed by the MNLF by way of reclaiming not just the ARMM areas but all remaining Moro territories under the concept of Ancestral Domain. And the MILF is reclaiming these colonized territories not for itself but for the entire Bangsamoro people, which include the MNLF. These land territories and territorial waters, inclusive of all the natural resources found therein, are what the MILF insists on as constituting the Bangsamoro Homeland to be governed by a Bangsamoro government (Bangsamoro Juridical Entity) created and run by the Bangsamoro people themselves and not by Filipino politicians in Manila or their local proxies, MNLF or otherwise.

Furthermore, when Ermita floated the argument that the GRP is a confronted by the dilemma on which of the two Moro Fronts should the GRP negotiate with (the MILF or the MNLF), he created a similar dilemma for the MILF. Which faction of the Philippine government should the MILF negotiate with: the Arroyo regime or the underground or legal Opposition? To many sectors of government and the Philippine public, the Arroyo regime is illegitimate and therefore an illegal entity. But the negotiation is not about who is illegitimate and illegal in the Philippine government. The real issue is who actually holds the reins of state power. Casting the issue of illegitimacy aside, the Arroyo regime holds the reins of state power that is why the MILF is negotiating with it and not with the putschists Senator Antonio Trillanes and General Danny Lim. If Ermita or Dureza were in Malacaòang holding the position of Arroyo, the MILF would be negotiating with them, too. To the MILF, who sits in Malacaòang or who heads the Philippine government is immaterial.

By the same token, the MILF is the strongest and biggest Moro Front today, and not the MNLF which had been co-opted into the Philippine nation-state in 1996. The MILF not only possesses the revolutionary strength that has sustained the Moro struggle over the years but it has the full moral and material support of the Bangsamoro nation. The MILF operates as a de facto Moro government, which even the international community has acknowledged, and it is on the face of this reality that the GRP has no recourse but to negotiate for peace with the MILF. If Ermita and Dureza and the rest of the gang in the Cabinet Security Cluster are still having misgivings over this fact, then they should ask themselves why even US President George Bush had mentioned the MILF in his speech before the Philippine Congress on October 18, 2003, not to mention former UN Secretary-General Koffi Anan when he met President Arroyo at the UN headquarters in New York City on September 24, 2003. Or, why the international community has been sending an unending stream of delegations to the MILF. If Ermita and Dureza et al are not yet convinced, then they are either blind or plain stupid or simply too anti-Moro and anti-Muslim to realize this truth. It is a pity Arroyo has taken in these people as her advisers. No wonder why her regime is floundering aimlessly.

From the MILF’s point of view, the Philippine Constitution should not be a stumbling block to the formulation of a political solution to end the conflict in Mindanao. The MILF is cognizant of the constitutional difficulties confronting the GRP in the negotiation and has given leeway to the latter to address these appropriately. Yet, this has not prevented the GRP from invariably erecting constitutional obstacles along the way of the speedy resolution of the conflict. Thus, it took more than seven years of negotiation and one all-out war before the peace process could reach the stage where it is in now. And in all those seven years, the MILF has been telling the GRP that these constitutional obstacles are not insurmountable because working formulas to resolve constitutional issues can be found in current paradigms to resolve sovereignty-based conflicts around the globe. In Bosnia, Kosovo, Northern Ireland, Bougainville, and South Sudan, among others, constitutional issues did not pose as obstacles in the way of achieving a just and sustainable peace in conflict-ridden nations. Constitutions were ‘adjusted’ and/or amended to address the exigencies of conflict resolution. This is now the norm in resolving sovereignty-based conflicts.

In this context, the MILF did not pose objection to the ‘constitutional means’ – or to any moral and legitimate means, for that matter – by which the GRP intends to implement its part of the bargain under the peace agreements provided these do not involve the MILF, which considers such ‘constitutional means’ as internal to the GRP and should not, therefore, be reflected in any of the agreement between the MILF and the GRP. What matters most to the MILF is that the GRP could deliver on its commitments pursuant to the agreements and, at the end of the long process, accept and pose no obstruction to the inevitability of the Bangsamoro people’s exercise of their right to rule themselves and their right to determine their future political status as enunciated in the MILF-GRP Tripoli Agreement on Peace 2001.

The recognition, acceptance and affirmation of the inevitable outcome of the peace process in the light of the earned sovereignty approach to resolve the Mindanao conflict are in fact the reasons behind why Secretary Silvestre Afable, Jr., was forced to resign as chair of the GRP panel. In his November 9, 2006 official communication to MILF panel chair Mohaghir Iqbal coursed through the Malaysian Secretariat, Afable explicitly stated the GRP panel’s position upholding the right of the Bangsamoro people to self-determination and proposed the modality, which is referendum, by which such right is to be exercised at the end of a specified transition period. Afable and his staff did a good research on current trends in the resolution of sovereignty-based conflicts and came up with a relevant political formula that would permanently end the war in Mindanao. Apparently, people high up in the Arroyo regime were not happy with this and so pressured him into resigning. Unfortunately, too, Arroyo lacked the political will to defend her erstwhile chief negotiator who was doing very well in the peace negotiation with the MILF.

In the present standoff in the negotiation, the GRP’s spokesmen harp on the MILF’s insistence on disregarding the Philippine Constitution, which they allege is the cause of the aborted peace talks in Kuala Lumpur. As explained above, nothing could be farther from the truth. The MILF aborted the talks because the GRP reneged on what has already been agreed upon. It is not merely a matter of “disregarding the Philippine Constitution”. It is a matter that involves the very principle which guides and animates the negotiation. If the MILF went along the wishes of the GRP, it would have consigned all the gains of the peace process to the trashcan; hence, it would have ended up like the MNLF.

Should the standoff take on a longer duration, the situation could turn into a dangerous scenario that would imperil the future of the peace process and dash whatever hopes people still cling to for ending the conflict in Mindanao. The ‘extremists’, whether Moro or Filipino, would only be too happy if such a scenario were to develop as a consequence of an indefinite impasse in the negotiations. Impatience is rapidly creeping upon the Moro masses and this is fuelling the agitation for war by hotheads who have never been convinced of the sincerity of the GRP. Similarly, anti-Arroyo elements are prepared to ride on a volatile situation that would open the doors to war. In any event, if another war erupts violence would have gone full circle and we will be back to where we started before.

Nonetheless, in the long run the big loser in this dirty game now being played out at the expense of the peace process is the GRP, not the MILF.

As a revolutionary organization, the MILF is experienced enough – and if I may add, tough enough – to survive any adversity thrown its way. And it was able to prove this in the two all-out wars waged against it by the GRP besides the countless attempts by the latter to diminish its political and military power through a relentless, vicious ‘anti-terror’ campaign against its civilian mass base and through the provocative military operations that the AFP has been periodically waging against it despite the ceasefire agreement in the battle zones of Maguindanao, Basilan, North Cotabato, Lanao del Norte, Davao and in other such conflict-affected areas of Mindanao and Sulu. That aside, the MILF’s prowess for revolutionary consolidation and ideological, political and military expansion is very much evident in its strong organizational presence in Sulu and Tawi-Tawi, which were once exclusive strongholds of the defunct MNLF.

Lest the spoilers of the negotiation do not realize, the Bangsamoro people will never allow the MILF to be defeated politically and militarily. This is a statement of fact, not a boastful claim. What happened to the MNLF is where the buck stops. It cannot be allowed to happen again. On the other hand, under no circumstance would the MILF give up the aspiration of the Bangsamoro people for self-determination. This is the symbiotic relationship between the MILF and the Bangsamoro people that is born out of ideology as well as the imperatives for survival – the survival of the Bangsamoro as a people and as a nation.

The same thing, however, cannot be said of the sitting regime in Manila. Any big war in Mindanao could bring the regime down economically and politically. Its adversaries, including those in the AFP, are just waiting at the sidelines for any opportunity to bring it down with a big bang. And this opportunity could very well be an offensive war against the MILF in Mindanao – assuming that the GRP would again blunder into waging one – or even a war initiated by the hotheads among the Bangsamoro people, or by rebellious elements of the AFP, or by anarchist elements. With her current popularity and credibility taking an unprecedented dive (negative 16 as a recent poll survey reveals), it is unlikely that the Filipino masses would even lift a finger to defend Arroyo. She is hated by most Filipinos and if given the chance, they would readily join the move to oust her if assured that this would succeed. They would be too happy to get rid of a blatantly corrupt and repressive regime. Even Arroyo’s most die-hard allies in government are starting to distance themselves from her or are secretly plotting her downfall. And knowing the propensity of the AFP top brass for opportunism, her generals would abandon her as they abandoned Marcos and Estrada once the going gets tough. Indeed, Arroyo should take lessons from her deposed predecessors. Her legendary ‘staying power’ has its limits, and, as it is, those limits have almost been reached.

The question now in the uppermost minds of people is where this standoff in the peace process leads to. As in the impasse of 2006, the ‘ball’ is now in the hands of the Arroyo regime. The GRP has to decide once and for all whether to proceed with the present course of the negotiation or ‘dribble’ endlessly using the MNLF as the ‘ball’ to gain time, leverage, and the opportunity to unilaterally determine the outcome of the negotiation. The ‘MNLF card’, however, will never work to the advantage of the Arroyo regime even with the connivance of some member-states of the OIC. It could perhaps delay the resumption of negotiation with the MILF if the GRP decides on continuing the talks at its own ‘leisurely’ pace, or it could scuttle the peace process altogether.

Either way, the result would be the same: the resumption of wide-scale conflict in Mindanao and Sulu. Once this happens, the Arroyo regime should bid goodbye to 2010.