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Posts Tagged ‘MILF’

[My next column in Catalyst]

On its face, the Supreme Court’s Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) on the implementation of the law postponing the ARMM elections is a triumph for the principles of autonomy and democracy. The law has been criticized and resisted by many sectors on the basis of the latter principles. However, when viewed within the context of the political developments in the South, the TRO has only confused an already complicated situation. In a word, it has become an unavoidably political decision.

First, most Moro political groups, including many in the opposition, had already accepted the reality of the law’s operations and its consequences. They are in the midst of discussions on the possible reforms that can be done during the 21 months of the transition period until the 2013 ARMM elections. They are also in the midst of applying for, being interviewed, and lobbying for appointments to various positions in the interim ARMM government.

Second, the peace negotiation with the MILF has reached a critical stage, when the two sides have formally submitted to the other side their initial negotiating positions. Each side—expectedly—rejected the other side’s position. The factionalism within the MILF, especially that of the Umbra Kato-led forces, lent urgency to the negotiating process. The Tokyo consensus points are imperilled.

The Supreme Court TRO decision came in at the last minute—when the officers-in-charge are about to be appointed by the President in consonance with the upcoming end of term of current set of ARMM officials on September 30, 2011. Logically, it should have issued the TRO upon the submission last July of the petitioners of their positions to the Supreme Court—in order to let the ARMM elections proceed as planned. The timing alone lends suspicion of a political decision.

The TRO, in effect, prevented Moro autonomy from working in the post-law period. All the consultations with various Moro sectors and groups will come to naught and their enthusiastic participation in the selection process will be set aside. The Supreme Court, ironically, is the culprit this time.

The nature of the issue at hand is very political. The primary branch to deal with it is the legislature. The Supreme Court, by accepting the case and acting on the TRO, is vulnerable to the charge of political legislation. Of course, it does not help that the Aquino government also became vulnerable to Supreme Court intervention due to the weak constitutional and legal bases for its decision to postpone the ARMM elections.

However, the issue now is how to proceed. The courses open to the government are all fraught with peril. One, it can contest the TRO with a motion for reconsideration and accept the real risk that it will be rejected and therefore lose more time in the process. Two, it can wait for September 30 and the President appoints officers-in-charge based on his residual powers to prevent a power vacuum and accept the risk that the Supreme Court may well issue another order preventing these from serving. Three, it may accept the present set of ARMM officials to maintain their offices on a holdover capacity after September 30 (the option seemingly preferred by the SC TRO) and accept the risk of non-implementation of its touted reforms.

The Aquino government has another option—and that is to confront frontally the increasingly political role that a core group of GMA loyalist justices wants the Supreme Court to perform. With a very high approval public trust rating and an aligned Congress, the possibility of impeaching these justices nears the realm of probability. This option has often been argued within the Aquino government as a surgical move—in place of the slow process of retiring justices—in order to prevent these justices from inflicting more political damage and derail court cases of grand corruption and plunder against GMA, her cohorts, and her cronies.

Will PNoy take this drastic move?

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[This is my forthcoming column in Catalyst. I’m posting it here because of numerous requests.]

President Aquino arrived in Tokyo at 6 p.m. Thursday, met the head of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), Chairman Al Haj Murad Ibrahim at 8:45 p.m. at the Ana Crowne Hotel, and left for Manila at 10 a.m. Friday. By doing so, he set off a wave of speculations roiling across the nation, especially in Mindanao, where the MILF insurgency is situated. The request for the talk came from President Aquino, cutting through the usual protocols.

On its face, both sides agreed that the top-level one-on-one talk was successful. They both agreed on fast-tracking the negotiations, citing the boost the talk gave to the formal process. The MILF said in a statement that the meeting gave “a tremendous boost to the peace negotiations and in rekindling public expectation to fast-track the peace settlement.” The Chairman of the government panel, Professor Marvic Leonen, on his part said that the meeting “helps the formal negotiations between the panels on both sides.”

Professor Leonen also said that both sides “agreed that the implementation of any agreement should happen within [the term of] the current administration.” The MILF was a bit more reticent, saying only that there was “consensus that all substantive and outstanding issues discussed by both leaders will be taken up by the peace panels for deliberation on the negotiating table.”

It is inconceivable that the Philippine president will seek a personal, one-on-one meeting with the MILF chairman just for coffee talk, “getting-to-know-you,” or to merely boost the ongoing peace negotiations. This is all crap talk.

I think reading between the lines of the formal statements of both sides and subsequent pronouncements of both sides, plus a contextual assessment of the recent history of the peace talks, is more productive and can lead to an understanding of the President’s risky out-of-the-box move.

It is evident from the formal statements that the President discussed bottomlines and feet-on-the-ground options with Chairman Murad and that these were received with openness by the latter. What are these? The government side, in subsequent pronouncements, broadly hinted that it will not accept the idea of a Moro substate or any proposal akin to the ill-fated Bangsamoro Juridical Entity (BJE). There was heavy speculation last June that the President rejected the government panel’s original position, among other reasons, of resuming formal negotiations based on BJE and other major elements of the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD) which the Supreme Court already declared as unconstitutional.

The government, after the Tokyo talk, instead pointed out that the MILF has already set aside its strategic position for an independent Moro homeland and is opting for Filipino citizenship “with a Moro national identity.” It presumes that some kind of an autonomy arrangement will accommodate this position.

It is a fact that the MILF is losing ground, politically and militarily. The split by Commander Umbra Kato, who has strong ties with the late MILF Chairman Hashim Salamat, was a body blow to the MILF. The failure of the MOA-AD also weakened MILF’s political standing. It now faces an Aquino administration with a huge reservoir of political goodwill and unfettered by the sins or promises of the past Arroyo administration.

A political moment has arrived for a possible meeting point. President Aquino took the risk. Now, history will judge him whether he has the instinct of a peace warrior or the foolish imagination of a court jester.

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The plight of overseas Filipino workers in the Arab and Middle East countries should be attended to and immediately!

A new order is coming into being in these countries–and depending on specific national conditions–Filipino OFWs will have to contend with its implications. The Aquino government should not underestimate these implications, not only to the OFWs themselves but also to our oil supplies, to inflation, local and global job availability, government tax income, Moro situation, great-power rivalry, international terrorism, and our democratic people power legacy.

The loss of possibly hundreds of thousands of jobs in these countries can lead–in the medium term–to a dip in the Philippine GNP growth. In a situation of global recession, this can lead to a “squeeze” effect when foreign jobs gets scarcer even as new graduates enter the labor market and the local job market cannot sufficiently expand to accommodate the slack.

Oil supplies may also suffer even as the oil prices shoot through the ceiling. This is also a “squeeze” situation where scarcer but pricier oil and gas products drive up inflation even as foreign reserves scramble to cover higher-priced oil importation.

The government basically and indirectly taxes the OFWs through their remittance spending (consumer goods in malls, land and housing acquisitions, tourism, and other family-based spending). This will slow down and marginal business may collapse. Government income may thus take a hit.

As instability engulf the Arab world and the Middle East, big powers will increasingly compete for scarce resources–not only in these countries but throughout the world including southeast Asia. We are already well within the ambit of this hidden “resource war,” as a possible major resource for oil, gas, and other minerals.

Politically, we are also vulnerable to the events in the Arab world and in the Middle East because of our own Moro Muslims–who have living ties to the Arabic world. The Al Qaeda network extends into the region and into the Philippines. And to a certain extent, the events there mirror our own 1986 people power.

It is now a question of when–and not if–a major global crisis hits us from the events in the Arab world and the Middle East. The crisis opens both the door to our own crises and our own opportunities. Interesting but dangerous times. Also, dangerous but interesting times.

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The election of Benigno S. Aquino III last May 10, 2010 as the 15th president of the Philippine Republic easily stood out as the political event of the year in the country. It may even be called a political tour de force.

What started out as a rag-tag presidential campaign borne out of the “people power” fervor in the aftermath of his mother’s death became a steamroller by the time of the May 2010 elections. In its wake were left behind the other candidates and, to a certain extent, much of the traditional politics as we know it. If the promises of a solution to the poverty of the people and to the chronic corruption by those in power and their business cronies are actually carried out by the new Aquino government, then a political tour de force would have been accomplished. The march to a modern democratic state and society will be on a surer footing and Aquino will enter the history books alongside his parents.

The political 2010 will be remembered for the automated election system, the credible election of President Noynoy Aquino, the national abhorrence against warlordism and election violence, and the demise of the grossly unpopular Arroyo administration. It has given new impetus for electoral and political reforms and strengthened Philippine democracy to a major extent.

However, the path towards democratic reforms has only been opened. It is also evident that the path will be neither straight nor easy. The remnants of the Arroyo administration, including their midnight and not-so-midnight appointees are putting up a fight, particularly in protecting themselves and their own in the judiciary, in Congress, and in the armed forces, as well in warlord enclaves throughout the country. The role of the two major rebel groups–the CPP and the MILF–is not yet clear enough to say whether they will provide the necessary leeway for democratic reforms or play the spoiler for their own objectives.

Everybody is waiting for the new president to demonstrate his decisiveness in advancing the anti-poverty and anti-corruption reforms he promised in his landslide victory. That he maintained his very high popularity ratings after six months in office speaks of the people’s trust that what he is doing so far is towards these reform goals. The trust ratings also are a commentary on his opposition’s failure in its unforgiving attacks on his administration since day 1.

The next six months will prove decisive to the political fate of the Aquino government. He has to resolve the immediate problems that the past Arroyo administration has given him, including the Arroyo influence in the judiciary, put in place the foundation for his anti-poverty and anti-corruption programs, and produce visible results in alleviating poverty and in combatting entrenched big corruptors. He also has to spell out his whole reform program and vision for the country, develop the long-term political instruments for these, and initiate the necessary political processes to realize these programs and vision.

A political tour de force there was in 2010. It remains to be seen if there will be a historic political tour de force in the long run.

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The Arroyo administration just dissolved the ill-fated government panel that negotiated for the MOA-AD. This was an expected decision, after it also announced before the Supreme Court that it wquld not sign the MOA-AD “in its present form or in any other form.” The MOA-AD–in its present version and in any other version–is now dead, mourned over, and finally buried.

It is evident that the GMA adminstration wants a way out of the MOA-AD fiasco, with as few wounds as possible. It finally dawned on GMA that the MOA-AD adventure can well lead to the end of her own administration. The various protestations of Solicitor-General Devenadera that GMA did not read the agreement, nor given her authority even to the initialing of the document, nor would she give it if the agreement is known to her basically shows a desperate attempt to distance her from a Supreme Court decision that may not be to her liking and may not even spare her the ultimate responsibility for a botched peace process.

However, the consistent thread running through the maneuvers of Malacañang through all the vicissitudes of the public outcry, the MILF attacks, reported foreign pressures, and the drama in the Supreme Court is a consistent declaration for maintaining the peace initiative. The so-called DDR alternative strategy (disarmament, demobilization, and rehabilitation), smells of a hastily-drawn, temporary, and patchwork initiative. A new peace initiative is called for by the current situation unless the government and the MILF are already prepared for and has the political will for renewed war. I don’t think so.

The dissolution of the current peace panel but the retention of the position of the presidential adviser on the peace process and presidential instructions for review of the current peace process points to a new peace strategy in the near future. The specter of a resurrected MOA-AD in a completely new guise is still with us.

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Three days ago, in the reception for US Peace Corps Volunteer Director Ronald A. Tschetter, I had an interesting conversation with US ambassador Kristie Kenney. For the information of conspiracy theorists out there–for what’ s its worth–she officially and forcefully repeated her statement that the US had nothing to do with the MOA-AD, that she had not read it, that she was invited by the Philippine government, as many other diplomats, to witness the Kuala Lumpur signing. She also reiterated that they have no plans to put up permanent US bases in Mindanao or in Palawan. She would later come out in various media saying the same things.

That should do it for the official US view. Now for the intriguing part.

I refer you to this particular article in the World Politics Review, Preserving the Southern Philippines’ Threatened Peace Deal by Prashanth Parameswaran, an intern of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). To political science scholars, CSIS is a bi-partisan US thinktank chaired by former US Senator and Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Sam Nunn (D) and includes key defense and foreign policy gurus as Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, James Schlesinger, and Brent Scowcroft. It often hosts lectures and discussion groups participated in by former and sometimes current Philippine policy-makers such as former president Fidel Ramos. It is expected to have an influential voice in the coming US administration, whether it be an Obama or a McCain one.

CSIS, last March 2008, inaugurated its new Southeast Asian Studies Initiative, a permanent research focused on the Philippines and other Southeast Asian countries.

The article had four specific and interesting quotations:

1. “The United States should be concerned at the recent developments [i.e., MOA-AD, the opposition to it, and the renewed war in the South] in the 30-year bloody struggle between the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) rebel group and the Philippine government. After all, it was Washington that granted independence to a unified, majority-Christian Philippine state in 1946 despite calls by Moro Muslims for a separate status. These grievances later crystallized into a full-blown insurgency.”

2. “… the best way to test the MILF’s sincerity, unity and capacity, all of which are major concerns of critics of the peace deal, is to give the MILF its first opportunity to govern as a willing partner. The ball would then be in the MILF’s court, allowing the Philippine government to test the group before determining its future posture. The approach is at least worth a try. Contrary to popular belief, the MILF remains a homegrown nationalist group with limited ties to international terror networks, and its steadfast commitment to a peace accord despite a near two-year deadlock suggests it is more committed to the peace process than critics give it credit for.”

3. “A final peace deal will continue to be caught up in intense political infighting unless the Arroyo administration can muster the political will to overcome a host of significant obstacles. As it navigates through heated debates, the administration would do well to clarify its policies in order to squelch speculation and educate the public about this controversial issue — like specifying exactly which constitutional amendments it may seek.”

4. “The next U.S. administration, for its part, should continue to play a constructive role in the Southern Philippines. That means encouraging the Philippine government to go forward with the peace deal as well as playing a largely behind-the-scenes role in facilitating negotiations. All this should be done with adroit diplomacy that is ever mindful of stoking the sensitivities of Philippine nationalism. Washington must also continue its robust counterterrorism assistance in the region, which involves a holistic approach of economic development and military training that will play a vital role in bringing sustainable peace to an underdeveloped region marred by violence. In this way, the Philippines can continue to be a model for how the U.S. can help its allies battle international terror and constructively facilitate reconciliation with nationalist rebel groups.”

Of course, this is a piece written by an intern of a private thinktank (read: deniable). However, the article is remarkably candid and touched on many key elements in the current political crisis related to the MOA-AD. Is pursuing the MOA-AD the real US policy? Then, I fear it is out of touch with the reality here on the ground.

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As of this date, the tense Mindanao situation is in a slide towards a bloody ethnic war between Moros and non-Moros. That is, unless the political leaders on both sides step back from the brink and stand down their respective armed groups and go back to the negotiation table.

The culprit, of course, is the MOA-AD. When it was made public, a nationwide uproar against it erupted, the Supreme Court issued a Temporary Restraining Order, the Kuala Lumpur signing was canceled, furious MILF commanders retaliated by attacking Christian communities, an enraged AFP and police ordered offensives and issued 10,000 firearms to civilian volunteers, MILF refused to acknowledge and apologize for the attacks, landed arms, and prepares to defend its positions, and now local Christian authorities form their own vigilantes. Voila, we have transited to a war situation.

There is the persistent illusionary opinion that the Supreme Court TRO and the non-signing of the MOA-AD was the culprit. In this context, this opinion sees the MILF attacks as “understandable.” Those who hold on to this view should wake up to the fact that the logical sequence of events started with the imminent signing of the MOA-AD, not the TRO. The MOA-AD was seen by many key national and local leaders and political forces as unacceptable.

To argue that these leaders and forces are “rightists,” “anti-Moro,” “chauvinists,” “warmongers, “non-Mindanaoans,” etc. and, by implication, do not have any right or any say on the MOA is futile, childish, and non-sequitur. Since the MOA-AD, with its sweeping coverage, touches on and has grave implications on the very foundations of our lives and that of the Republic, these leaders and forces have all the right and the say, as all of us living here in the Philippines, including the pro-MOA-AD advocates, have all the same right and the same say. We call ourselves stakeholders.

The Moro people and the rest of the Filipino people are all stakeholders in the search for a just and lasting peace in Mindanao. As are the various key sectors as the ARMM, MNLF, Moro tribal leaders, Ulamas, and Moro civil society on the Moro side, and the political parties (including the political opposition), key state institutions as Congress and the Supreme Court, key institutions as the churches, mass media, private sector, and civil society, local governments and people in affected areas, and even relevant international and foreign entities on the government side. As stakeholders, we, or at the least the leaders, should have been consulted (and solicited our views and consent to the limits of concessions) by government negotiators before even initiating the drafting of the document.

The failure to do so, and the overly-secretive process of the negotiations, predictably made all of us uneasy. When the agreement was forced to be made public, it turned out that the government made commitments that certainly would lead to the national uproar that ensued. It conceded commitments beyond what is politically-acceptable based on present political realities. The MOA-AD cannot simply be accepted by the people and many of the above-named stakeholders.

The danger here is that the MILF, and possibly many Moro friends and peace advocate colleagues as well, does not realize this: That the Macapagal-Arroyo government has sold them a set of defective, if glossy, goods. An agreement without the consent of all stakeholders, is not a recipe for lasting peace–it is a recipe for more conflict and humanitarian disaster.

The right political balance has not been struck in the peace negotiations. Lamentation for the late and departed MOA-AD is a lamentation for war.

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