MANILA, Philippines – “Are we negotiating with a ghost or a true person?”
Senator Ferdinand Marcos Jr joined Davao City Representative Karlo Nograles in criticizing Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) chief negotiator Mohagher Iqbal's use of an alias in signing a historic peace deal with the Philippine government.
In a statement dripping with sarcasm, Marcos referred to the rebel leader as “the person known as Iqbal,” and put his name in quotation marks. He said senators will look into the issue at the resumption of the hearings into the Bangsamoro bill on Monday, April 13.
“The MILF leadership claims to be led by Filipino citizens. Even 'this person who is known as Iqbal' claims to be Filipino and 'Bangsamoro' by identity …. As such, this Senate has the power ask, nay require, in aid of legislation, those who appear before us to reveal their true identities,” Marcos said on Thursday, April 9.
The senator's statement came a day after Iqbal defended before the House of Representatives his use of various aliases, refusing to divulge his real name. Iqbal argued that using a nom de guerre (war name) is common among revolutionary groups, and even heroes.
Like Nograles in the House hearing into the Mamasapano tragedy, Marcos questioned the impact of the alias use on the legality of the peace agreement Iqbal signed last year on behalf of the MILF, the country's largest Muslim rebel group.
“By using a nom de guerre, and claiming to represent the MILF, this person known as Iqbal places the entire peace process in jeopardy because he lacks the legal status to even represent and negotiate with the government,” Marcos said.
He added: “What is the civil status of this person?”
Marcos wants to know who notarized the peace deal and the documents Iqbal signed. The senator said that Philippine law requires that notarized documents be signed by persons using real names.
“This is entirely the first peace agreement in the world which a government negotiated with a fictitious person. Even that negotiated by other governments, those rebel leaders used their real names when signing peace pacts. This mocks the entire process and puts in serious question the very sincerity of the rebels to enter into peace with us,” he said.
The controversy over Iqbal's use of pseudonyms started with a Facebook post of former Interior Secretary Rafael Alunan III, who cited information from an anonymous source that Iqbal and MILF chairman Al Haj Murad Ebrahim supposedly hold Malaysian passports.
Iqbal responded by releasing a copy of his Philippine passport, but covered the portion showing his real name.
'Peace deal, docs not nullified'
The issue now threatens to cloud the Senate discussion on the BBL, right when it resumes after the controversial January 25 clash between elite cops and Moro rebels in the MILF stronghold of Mamasapano, Maguindanao set back the passage of the measure. The police operation to arrest international terrorists killed 44 commandos, 17 MILF members, and 5 civilians.
The bill aims to create an expanded autonomous region in Muslim Mindanao with greater powers and resources to end 4 decades of conflict and poverty. In the wake of Mamasapano, a Pulse Asia survey showed that 44% of Filipinos oppose the measure.
Echoing Justice Secretary Leila de Lima, government peace panel chairperson Miriam Coronel-Ferrer said that Iqbal's use of an alias does not nullify the documents he signed as part of the peace process.
“That's the very nature of a revolutionary organization, and that's the very nature of the peace process that will normalize the situation. Things that used to be illegal will become legal, and the most important thing is laying down arms, [stopping] the use of violence. I think that is our goal here: to transform into a process where everybody can participate,” Ferrer told reporters in a peace forum on Thursday.
The panel head said that the use of aliases is a form of protection for rebels like Iqbal.
“Think about it: what if this fails? What if the next president declares war against the MILF? What will they do? They will go back to being underground. That's why they need other measures to protect themselves,” she explained.
Ferrer said names can be legally changed, citing the case of former President now Manila Mayor Joseph Estrada who does not use his real name Jose Marcelo Ejercito because his alias gained popularity from his days as a movie star. Estrada's son and fellow actor, detained Senator Jinggoy Estrada, also does not use his real name Jose Pimentel Ejercito Jr.
A political science professor, Ferrer reiterated that she has long known of Iqbal's various aliases. Iqbal published two books under the pen name “Salah Jubair.”
“We do not enter into these negotiations without studying. I did my research,” Ferrer said. “He was my research subject. So we also know of the books he wrote under other names.”
Despite the criticism and controversy, Ferrer chose to focus on the “constructive experience.” The chairperson urged the public to consider how to move the peace process forward.
Handling funds with an alias?
Still, Marcos insisted that Iqbal cannot continue using aliases under the peace process.
“In the event that the Philippine government gives funds to the Bangsamoro Transitional Council (sic) of which this 'person known as Iqbal' heads as chairman, which name would he then sign those voluminous financial documents?”
Iqbal is chairperson of the Bangsamoro Transition Commission, a 15-member body that drafted the BBL. The Bangsamoro Transition Authority (BTA) is a yet-to-be constituted group that will prepare the transformation of the Bangsamoro region once the law is ratified. The President will appoint 50 members who will exercise legislative and executive powers.
Marcos confused the two, and repeated insinuations that Iqbal is Malaysian. He said the alias issue makes the Philippines “the laughingstock of the world.”
To Ferrer, Iqbal's use of an alias should not be a source of conflict or confusion.
“There is no other Mohagher Iqbal who signed the document. And he is not denying it is a contract, and this person affirms that he is a person who signed the contract of his organization,” she said. – Rappler.com