By Ibrahim Canana

Sometime in 2006, if memory serves me right, Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita told a group of foreign diplomats and media men that the Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP) finds it difficult to deal with the ‘Moro rebels’ because they are splintered into so many factions. Ermita was alluding to the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) as well as to the various factions of the latter.

The point that Ermita was trying to impress upon his audience was that the negotiation between the MILF and the GRP, which was going through a rough time at that particular moment, is quite impossible to conclude because the GRP does not know whom to deal with. That is why, he averred, the Moro Fronts have to unite first and put their acts together before the GRP can ink a final deal with the MILF. This is not, however the first time that Ermita raised this issue.

Apparently, Ermita at that time was looking for a good pretext to justify the GRP’s foot-dragging over the matter of concluding an agreement on Ancestral Domain with the MILF. This foot-dragging had caused the impasse in December 2006 as well as all the subsequent snags in the peace negotiation in 2007 and 2008.

But as recent events show, what Ermita was trying to project proves to be the other way around: the problem does not lie with the Moro liberation movement. The problem of  uncertainty  in concluding an agreement, especially on ancestral domain, that would usher in the end of the conflict in Mindanao is with the GRP.

For about four years since 2004, the MILF and the GRP were locked in critical negotiations over ancestral domain, which is the third and last aspect in the MILF-GRP Tripoli Agreement on Peace of June 2001. The MILF and GRP panels could not put closure to this Agreement until the Ancestral Domain is resolved and translated into a sub-agreement form. Once translated into sub-agreement form, i.e. the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD), the negotiation can now proceed to its last phase which is the table discussion on, and crafting of, the Comprehensive Political Compact which will embody the final formula designed for resolving the conflict in Mindanao.

Unfortunately, when the MOA-AD, which was earlier initialed by the chairs of the MILF and GRP panels, was set to be signed formally in an elaborate ceremony hosted by the Malaysian Government the Philippine Supreme Court acted on the petition of Filipino politicians headed by the colon vice-governor of North Cotabato, Emmanuel Piñol, by issuing a Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) to stop the GRP Panel from signing the MOA-AD. The TRO was issued on August 4, the eve of the signing ceremony at Putrajaya, the administrative capital of Malaysia. The result was what the MILF calls a faux pas, a ‘political and diplomatic’ blunder, that caused great embarrassment for the GRP because its last minute withdrawal from the ceremony made it appear like a fool before the representatives of the international community who were there to attend the would-be historic event.

There is however, a more a serious implication to this than just the faux pas in Kuala Lumpur. The whole debacle brings to fore the issue that Ermita raised on several occasions when he asked whom shall the GRP negotiate with in the face of the factionalism within the Moro liberation movement. But this time, it is the MILF that should ask the same question: With whom shall the MILF negotiate – the Arroyo regime, Congress, Supreme Court, the Church, the Big Business power blocs, the AFP or Piñol and the Filipino colons in Mindanao?

Former General Rodolfo Garcia, GRP chief negotiator, practically begged for this question when he stated to the media that in the event the Supreme Court rules against the legality of the MOA-AD, the GRP Negotiating Panel will have to renegotiate the Ancestral Domain issue with the MILF. After more than three months of ‘due diligence’ – three months that it took the legal experts commissioned by the GRP to study the constitutionality and legality of the draft MOA-AD – now the GRP Negotiating Panel Chair is telling us that the same issue which took four years to settle on the negotiating table has to be renegotiated.

What happened to the “due diligence” of the legal experts of the GRP?

Who are we going to negotiate with this time, the Supreme Court?

Who, indeed?

Why not Piñol and Celso Lobregat who seem to be more powerful than the GRP or the Philippine Republic?

If one has to listen to the griping against the MOA-AD and give validity to the claims of those Filipino sectors that say that they are the stakeholders in Mindanao but were not consulted, it is as if it is the Bangsamoro people who have no right to assert their own claim to their ancestral domain. The Filipinos have forgotten that the Moro homeland has been occupied and owned by the Moros since time immemorial and for which they have sacrificed many lives down the centuries to preserve and defend from aliens, including the Filipino colons, who covet it.

The question posed above, now primordial in view of the debacle in Kuala Lumpur, is what Ermita et al should answer.

Except for the politically senile Nur Misuari, the still potent factions of the MNLF are one with the MILF behind the Bangsamoro Ancestral Domain issue. Brother Muslimin Sema, the current mayor of Cotabato City and recently elected chair of the MNLF Central Committee, was there in Putrajaya; and so was Brother Jikiri, former MNLF-Bangsamoro Army Chief of Staff and now a member of the Philippine Congress, among others. Other MNLF leaders would have been there if it were not of the relatively heavy financial requirement for travel.

Moro civil society groups were also there in full force, including the representative of a once secret Moro revolutionary society in the late 60s whose members became the core of the first batch of young Moro foreign-trained guerilla cadres that formed what was to become the MNLF. They all came to witness a very historic, nay, a highly emotional event that was the near culmination of the long and hard revolutionary struggle of the Bangsamoro people. Every Moro who went to Putrajaya to witness the signing took part in it one way or the other.

But what is most interesting and highly significant is that the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) was present in the person of its representative, Dr. Sayed Al Masry, Adviser to the OIC Secretary General and Special Envoy for the Peace Process in Southern Philippines. According to Dr. Al Masry, his presence at Putrajaya is not only to witness the signing but to endorse the MOA-AD for and in behalf of the OIC.

It has to be noted that in the past the OIC had been hesitant to recognize any peace agreement other that those between the MNLF and GRP. This change of mind indicates that the OIC has now realized the reality on the ground in Mindanao that it is currently the MILF that is on the driver seat of the peace negotiation with the GRP. That the MILF has gained more than what was accomplished by the MNLF on the negotiating table is a realization that finally dawned on the OIC.

What do all of these presences signify? These signify the important fact that the MILF has done its homework of uniting behind the MOA-AD the domestic and international forces needed to be harnessed to give it legitimate recognition and legitimacy. In contrast, the GRP, alas, has dismally failed even to get the support of its own officials or, to be more precise, the other two major branches of government – the legislative and the judiciary. Worse, it even failed to draw support from its constituency, the Filipino public.

That said, the aborted signing in Kuala Lumpur reopened the proverbial can of worms. For one, it exposed the internal weaknesses of the GRP, particularly the inutility of the sitting regime. Having been forced to cancel the act of affixing its signature on a document that it had already initialed earlier, the GRP is cast in a situation whereby its capability to conclude peace agreements with the MILF, not to mention the MNLF and the National Democratic Front (NDF),  is now open to doubt. And this does not augur well for the peace process in Mindanao because elements within the Moro liberation movement who oppose negotiations with the GRP seem to have been proven right.

Indeed, why negotiate with a weak and inutile government that cannot exercise authority over its own people let alone deliver on its commitments in the agreements it signed with other parties?

This can of worms has also regurgitated another unsavory reality that has been with us ever since our forefathers fought the Spaniards and their Indio factotums: the anti-Moro attitude of the Filipinos.

We are aghast at the way Filipino politicians, whether in and out of government, and with the help of the media, have whipped up an anti-Moro, anti-Muslim hysteria that has swept the whole country. It is simply nauseating to see and hear on radio and TV these politicians blatantly and publicly distort the MOA-AD and turn it into propaganda to demonize the MILF, the Bangsamoro people and Islam. It is sickening to note that they are playing on the ignorance of the Filipino public to drum up opposition to an agreement that would be the key to resolving a long-drawn conflict that has confined both the Bangsamoro and Filipino peoples in the political, economic and social quagmire.

The MILF-GRP agreements, and notably the MOA-AD, never talk of Moro independence. Yet, with the way it is being presented to the public by these politicians and the media it is as if the MOA-AD were already a declaration of independence by the MILF and the Bangsamoro people.

In an endless mantra that is already irritating to the ear, the Philippine constitution is said to have been violated by the MOA-AD. No consultation, they also aver, has been made by both the GRP and MILF panels regarding it.

Clearly, the Filipino politicians and their paid media hacks who peddle this lie either do not know the root cause of the Mindanao conflict or they are simply driven by their greed and colonialist impulses not to allow any measure of justice to be accorded to the Moros.

Whatever it is, the simple but ugly truth that now stares us in the face is: the Filipinos hate the Moros so much that they would never allow the latter to be free or even be given a semblance of self-rule.

The debacle in Kuala Lumpur and its aftermath – the reemergence of the anti-Moro, anti-Muslim sentiment in view of the MOA-AD – made this clear to all of us, including the international community.

But let us look at their arguments.

They say that there was no consultation on the matter of ancestral domain. This is a prevarication. The MILF held numerous consultation meetings with the Moro public on this. In May 2004, before panel discussion on ancestral domain commenced, a mammoth gathering was held in Camp Darapanan which was attended by more than 3 million Moros from all walks of life and from all parts of the Bangsamoro homeland. Consultation is one of the cornerstones of MILF policy-formulation. The MILF leadership had informed the representatives of the various sectors of the Bangsamoro people of the then forthcoming negotiation on ancestral domain. Subsequently, the MILF leadership received the mandate to negotiate for and in behalf of the Bangsamoro. This mandate was extended by the MILF leadership to the MILF Negotiating Panel.

If there are sectors of Moro society that were not consulted, it is because of extraordinary circumstances pertaining to security and/or the rule on confidentiality in the peace talks which the MILF, GRP and the Malaysian facilitators have all agreed on. But by and large, all sectors of Moro society were informed and appraised of the centrality of Ancestral Domain to the resolution of the conflict in Mindanao.

The Filipinos have no right whatsoever to accuse us of failing to consult our public. They should remember that the Bangsamoro people were not consulted when they were incorporated into the Philippine Commonwealth in 1935 and subsequently into the Philippine Republic in 1946.

During martial law, when Cotabato was gerrymandered and divided into smaller provinces of which the larger and richer ones were given to the Filipino colons, there never was any democratic exercise to consult the Moros on the parceling of their home province. The division of Cotabato was made while war was being waged against the Bangsamoro people by the Marcos dictatorship. Yet after the dictatorship was booted out of power in 1986, there was no attempt to rectify this anomalous gerrymandering of Moro territories by the new regime in Manila which claimed to have restored democracy and justice.

It has always been the rule under the Philippine colonial regime that when it comes to the partition of Moro lands, only the Filipinos have the right to do that, not the Moros. Even an institution like the so-called Autonomous Region for Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) which has been set up for the purpose of perpetuating the charade of political autonomy for the Moros does not have that right. Look at what happened to the now-defunct province of Sharif Kabungsuan. The Regional Legislative Assembly (RLA) of the ARMM created a new province out of the existing province of Maguindanao (albeit to serve the political interest of a Moro warlord close to the regime in Manila) but this was later nullified by the Philippine Supreme Court which ruled that it is not within the competence of the RLA to create a new province. What does this tell us? Only the Filipinos who dominate Congress can create provinces from Moro territories as they see fit. This should put an end to the myth of “Muslim autonomy”.

Which bring us then to the question of the Constitution.

The Mindanao Problem predates all of the Philippine constitutions – from the 1935 constitution to the 1987. It even predates the establishment of the Philippine Republic in 1946. In other words, the solution to the conflict in Mindanao can never be solved by and within the Philippine constitution. Any Filipino bright boy who says so is deceiving himself and the Filipino public. Why? It is because the conflict in Mindanao is colonial in nature; it is rooted in the historic usurpation of the sovereignty and freedom of the Bangsamoro people which the Spanish colonialists failed to achieve but which the Americans succeeded in partly accomplishing and which they passed on to the Filipinos as a colonial legacy. Nonetheless, though the Moros were forced to come under Filipino colonial rule at the point of American bayonets, they never gave up on their aspiration to regain their freedom and the restoration of their homeland. That is why all the way from American colonial rule to Philippine colonial rule, there was almost an unbroken chain of Moro armed resistance. This armed resistance is what the negotiation between the MILF and the GRP is trying to address and resolve peacefully “out of the box”, meaning outside the constrictive parameters of the Philippine constitution.

Is this possible and legitimate? Yes. The wholesale injustice committed on the Bangsamoro people should make this possible and legitimate as well as moral. Contemporary paradigms in resolving sovereignty-based conflicts around the globe, such as the Mindanao problem, are geared at the outset toward addressing the root cause of these conflicts before constitutional issues are brought up to accommodate the political formulas agreed on at the negotiating table. In short, in resolving these conflicts the constitutions of the states involved were never taken as obstruction in the way of crafting political formulas that would end these conflicts to the satisfaction of the parties concerned. This happened in resolving the sovereignty-based conflicts in Northern Ireland, South Sudan, Bougainville, etc. Shared sovereignty, as a modality for addressing the sensitive issue of state sovereignty versus the right of self-determination of a captive nation, has found its way into the constitutions of established nation-states. And the states which accomplished this were not only able to resolve a debilitating problem but move forward to political stability and economic progress.

Cognizant of this fact, at the beginning of their negotiations in 1997 and again in 2001, the MILF and the GRP came into a compromise: the issue of independence will not be raised by the MILF and the GRP will not invoke the Philippine constitution as framework for formulating the negotiated political settlement of the conflict. With this mutual understanding, the parties proceeded with the incremental peace negotiation that took almost 11 years to reach the present stage that it is in now.

But even with this arrangement, the MILF, in all its dealings with the GRP in or out of the negotiating table, never required the latter to violate its own constitution. Never. The record of the minutes of the meetings that took place since the negotiation began in earnest in Kuala Lumpur in 2001 should attest to this. What the MILF demanded from the GRP is that it should fulfill its commitments in the agreements. If fulfilling the agreements requires amending the Philippine constitution to accommodate these agreements, the MILF posed no objection because this is an endeavor that is internal to the GRP and its constituency. What matters most to the MILF is the GRP’s commitment and sincerity to fulfill its end of the bargain. As to whether this would entail constitutional changes or not is never the concern of the MILF.

What the Filipino politicians – and the Filipino public for that matter –  failed to comprehend is that the MILF is not bound to a constitution that it does not recognize. The MILF is a revolutionary organization, not a political party that operates within the ambit of the constitution. Furthermore, the MILF is not the MNLF, which ultimately recognized and accepted the supremacy of the Philippine constitution over the agreements it forged with the GRP.

The MILF cannot make the same mistakes that would lead to the failure of any agreement with GRP as what befell the agreements between the MNLF and the GRP. This is basically the reason why the MILF rejected the Philippine Constitution as the framework for negotiations with the GRP. On the other hand, it does not prevent the GRP from taking ‘legal’ measures and processes to accommodate in the Constitution the agreements signed on the negotiating table.

This is clearly reflected in the MOA-AD where it mentions the holding of a plebiscite in areas that are to be included in the territory of the Bangsamoro Juridical Entity (BJE) outside of the present ARMM areas and the six Moro-dominated municipalities in Lanao del Norte which voted for inclusion in the ARMM. If the MILF was inconsiderate of the dilemma that the GRP would be facing in delivering these Moro areas to the BJE, it would not have consented to a plebiscite, which is a constitutional process. In fact, those who vociferously cry out that the MOA-AD has not gone through the process of consultation ignore the provision on plebiscite which is stipulated in the document. What better popular consultation can one have than a plebiscite?

And to those who are falling for the lie that we Moros are forcing the indigenous peoples (IPs) to join the BJE, better look at the MOA-AD again. There you will find among its provisions the declaration that the IPs  have been given the free choice – repeat, free choice – to join or not to join the BJE. And talking of IPs, we Moros are the indigenous people of Mindanao, Sulu and Palawan. Even before our forefathers embraced Islam and became nations under the Muslim sultanates, we occupied and lived in the lands that the Filipinos now claim as their ‘territory’ under their constitution.

The political opposition to the MOA-AD that spurred the nationwide reaction against the MILF and the Bangsamoro people has dangerously transformed a peace process that is supposed to bring reconciliation to two peoples at war with each other into a grim scenario that allows no space for the Moros to have a breathing spell.

Through the MNLF, the Moros asked for a meaningful political autonomy in 1976. Instead they were granted a fake one by the GRP under the Marcos regime using the 1976 Tripoli Agreement which allowed constitutional processes to shortchange the Moros. In 1996, the Moros again under the MNLF demanded for meaningful political autonomy; and again what they were given in the so-called MNLF-GRP Final Peace Agreement (FPA) was the ARMM, which was created before the FPA and whose autonomy was clipped by the Philippine constitution. Inevitably, the ARMM ended up reduced to merely being an extension of the Office of the Philippine President. Later, it was even taken out of MNLF hands and became a political prize awarded to the Moro warlord most loyal and subservient to the sitting regime.

Now, under the MILF, the Moros want to recover whatever little is left of their ancestral domain and be given the chance to govern themselves as a sub-state entity within the larger Philippine nation-state. Peace on the basis of justice is about to be achieved under this formula. But even this does not sit well with the Filipino elite, the politicians, the Church and the Filipino colons in Mindanao. They have sabotaged the efforts of their own government. All, including those who claimed to be sympathetic to the plight of the Bangsamoro people like Senator Aquilino ‘Nene’ Pimentel, Jr., have ganged up against the Bangsamoro people to prevent them from even reclaiming areas which  they now actually occupy and where they are the majority. The result: back to square one. Mindanao again is on the edge of an all-out war.

The selfishness of the Filipino ruling elite in general and the Filipino politicians in particular is dumbfounding. Their lack of sense of justice is appalling. They and their drumbeaters in the Philippine media can lie through their teeth and still have a nice sleep at night. Imagine telling the public the fantastic spin that Malaysia is arming the MILF and the Americans are behind the Moros’ desire to be an “independent Islamic State”. Why, they can’t even make sense of their allegations and lies!  You can never find any mention of an “independent Islamic state” in the MOA-AD even if the pages were turned upside down. To even say that the Americans are behind the attempt by the MILF to create a “Bangsamoro Islamic State” is absurd.  What fantasy! What ignorance! Hollywood hogwash has taken grip of the Filipino mind that it no longer knows what is real and what is imaginary. No wonder why the Philippine nation-state is moribund. No wonder why tens of thousands of Filipinos are leaving this country for good. Now I can better appreciate the context of what Ustadz Salamat Hashim, the late MILF Amir, said when he stated that we should not believe the Filipino unbelievers even when they say that the crow is black!

What needs to be stated here for the record is that we Moros are not inclined to abandon our homeland to these vultures. We will fight for it as our ancestors fought for it. The mestizo leftovers of the Spaniards such as the likes of Teddy Locsin and Lobregat, and Filipino colons in Mindanao like Piñol as well as their capitalist patrons ensconced in Makati can go hang themselves from nearest lamp post for all we care. The Moros will fight. MILF Base Commander Ustadz Amirul Ombra Cato will not be alone. A war in Mindanao will drag down this pathetic, artificial country and its government to perdition. Perhaps this time we will no longer settle for a sub-state or a federative arrangement with the Filipinos. It’s useless anyway because they would never grant it. They would always insist this is ‘secession’ even if we do not have the intention to secede. So let’s give them a dose of their own medicine. Let’s aim for independence this time. For real.  Like what the Algerians did when their clamor for autonomous rule was repeatedly and violently denied by the French colons. Given the Filipinos’ hostile attitude to anything Moro and Muslim, there is no other option left. This is now the reality facing us.