[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.