The Aquinos and the MILF

Glenda Gloria

It was January 1987 in Cotabato City. Then President Corazon Aquino was on a short visit to the city and agreed to meet -- albeit briefly -- with Al Haj Murad Ebrahim, military chief of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF.)

The Mindanao Cross, in its Jan 31, 1987 issue, recalled that moment: "A bouquet tied with a yellow ribbon was hastily made from a flower vase on a table for Murad to give to the President as a sign of peace. Unarmed but having 5 security men, Murad was led to an office of the LTP building where he waited for the President. There, she met Murad who gave her the flowers. The President said she would like to talk to him longer and went out of the anteroom as an official told her about the waiting crowd inside. Murad then gave the position paper on autonomy and the Mindanao problem to a presidential aide who told him of the President's desire to talk to him in Malacañang."

That meeting never happened. But another Aquino would fulfill that promise. On Monday, October 15, barring hitches, Murad will set foot in Malacañang Palace for the first time, to sign a peace agreement with the government peace panel. Murad is now the chairman of the MILF, and Cory Aquino's son is now President.

The road to peace for both sides has stretched for more than 3 decades. Except during the years when it was pummeled with military fire, the MILF leadership has always been for political settlement, has never shied away from negotiations, has been comfortable in mainstream politics. When Cory Aquino became president in 1986, the rebel organization immediately sent word that it had supported her presidential bid. The subtext of that message was for the Aquino administration to give the MILF a second look and perhaps sit down with it.

Somebody else, however, was the star of the show at the time. The bombastic Nur Misuari, chairman of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), dominated the political landscape of Muslim Mindanao. To the Muslim world and the influential Organization of Islamic Conference, he was the Yasser Arafat of Southeast Asia. The MILF, on the other hand, was seen as a mere breakaway group, an errant child trying to catch attention.

Misuari drowned all voices in the Muslim rebel movement in the 1980s, but even that wasn't sufficient to push the peace process forward under Cory Aquino. It took another decade -- in 1996 -- for a peace agreement to be finally signed between the government, then headed by Fidel Ramos, and Misuari's MNLF.

While both sides smoked the peace pipe, the MILF recruited troops, bought guns, expanded its base, and built the once-impregnable Camp Abubakar. Misuari, the face of Muslim dissent, had ceased to be a rebel. And the MILF was bent on showing the world it had come into its own.

It is easy to expect a peace agreement to be a big-bang solution to all our woes. Or for a deal to be wrapped in gold and silver. The 2012 Framework Agreement between the Aquino administration and the MILF is neither. That both panels struggled to stay away from this old formula -- so far -- deserves praise.

MNLF's shadow

When the Ramos government held talks with the MNLF, it dangled everything it could to the rebel organization. The result was a master stroke in cooptation that saw the Ramos government, like a feudal lord, parceling out government positions and resources to the rebel movement. It created the Southern Philippines Council for Peace and Development (SPCPD) and, when this seemed not enough, gave the ARMM (Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao) gubernatorial post to Misuari.

It was an agreement wrapped in gold and silver.

We all know how Misuari governed (?) ARMM. We remember too well, too, how the MNLF got mired in petty fights over control of the resources of the SPCPD.

Fast forward to today.

In all its previous negotiations with the government, the MILF made it clear that a future agreement would not sound, look and feel like the MNLF's. "The MILF was allergic to anything associated with the MNLF," said one of the negotiators.

Used for too long as a carrot by administrations, ARMM was never on the negotiating table in the present scenario, even if the May 2013 elections are just around the corner. And for good reason. The peace panels of the Aquino administration and the MILF, after all, know that ARMM is a failed venture. The 2012 Framework Agreement precisely sets the stage for its death and, hopefully, the birth of a more effective regional government.

Firearms: no ifs, no buts

The Framework Agreement is categorical as far as the MILF's commitment to lay down its firearms is concerned or, in peace parlance, take part in the "normalization" process through "decommissioning." The agreement states: "The MILF shall undertake a graduated program for decommissioning of its forces so that they are put beyond use."

In contrast, the Ramos government and the MNLF took an old and tested template: integration. To say it was messy is an understatement.

The Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Philippine National Police took the MNLF troops lock, stock, and barrel. The government not only absorbed the MNLF troops; it paid for their firearms as well. A period of adjustment and training disrupted the AFP's and PNP's own timetable for internal reform.

"Like fish out of water, the MNLF was thrust into an entirely new ballgame of governance and development work," I wrote in the book "Under the Crescent Moon: Rebellion in Mindanao" in 2000.

"Yet the conversion was doomed to remain incomplete, because while the peace agreement assumed the silencing of guns, it did not call for the rebel troops' demobilization or disarming. Indeed, while the MNLF was learning the ropes of governance with its right hand, its left hand -- uncertain of the future and disappointed with the present -- was holding on to its guns."

Former MNLF rebels who joined the PNP, for example, were not required by law to surrender their firearms. Instead, they even gained one firearm upon integration. Surely a lesson must be learned there.

This is not to say that integration didn't work; it did, for the most part. But it's not the only path to "normalization."

Under the Framework Agreement, both sides commit to help strengthen the local police force that will take the lead in ensuring peace in the area. When will the MILF decommission, and how long would the process take? What will happen to the MILF fighters? These are the next questions that the two panels hope to answer before the end of the year.

Good timing

The Framework Agreement comes as the country prepares for mid-term elections. Voters will be electing senators and representatives who will be crafting and approving the law creating the Bangsamoro region.

In an ideal world, this should be a campaign issue. In the circus that is the Philippine elections, we can only hope that the candidates, at the very least, will be able to spell out their stand and clearly explain it.

The 1996 peace agreement forged by the Ramos government and the MNLF came a bit too late in the game. By the following year, candidates were already revved up for the 1998 presidential elections. And when Joseph Estrada won the presidency, he went to war with the MILF, bulldozed their main camp, and brought Mindanao back to where it was -- or worse -- to pre-1996.

The tired and aging MILF leadership knows its best time is today, under this government and a popular president, and when it's still 3 years away from the next presidential race. The rebel organization is said to be wary of a prospective Jejomar Binay presidency, largely due to the ties of Binay to Estrada.

International monitors

Beyond the two parties, this peace process is not just the business of the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) or our Muslim neighbors Malaysia and Indonesia, as in the case of previous talks. In President Ramos' time, the pressure on Misuari to sign a peace pact came largely from the OIC and Indonesia. But it turned out they alone could not keep track of the implementation of the peace agreement.

The 2012 peace process has the imprimatur of the international community that had come together to see this through under the auspices of the International Contact Group: Japan, the United Kingdom, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, as well as the nongovernment organizations Asia Foundation, Coalition Resources, and the Center for Humanitarian Dialogue.

In short, the Aquino government and the MILF made a commitment not just to each other, but to the global community as well.

Both sides agreed that the Framework Agreement addresses the most contentious issues in the peace talks.

Everything in it will be subject not only to congressional approval but to public scrutiny too. And a vote. No big-bang solutions. No grand promises. To some, this is what makes this deal a conundrum.

But could we have wanted it any other way? The panels have, in effect, shared the business of building peace in the region with us. And if we want it bad enough, we will have it. And we will deserve it. - Rappler.com


Glenda M. Gloria

Glenda Gloria is the managing editor of Rappler and one of its co-founders. A journalist for three decades now, Glenda has been a reporter for newspapers, magazines, and wire agencies, and has run print, online, and TV newsrooms. She is a Nieman Fellow at Harvard, Class 2018 .

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