Sunday, July 15, 2007

Could we imagine ourselves being Mindanao Muslims even for just a while?

The death of 14 Marines in Tipo-Tipo, Basilan is but the latest painful episode in a cruel war that has raged for years in Mindanao, between the Manila government and the Moro rebels under different names. The beheading of ten or eleven of them is a crime against humanity that has no place in any war.

The fighting took place amid a ceasefire between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which are supposed to be engaged in peace talks, according to an agreed timetable. The Marines were on a search and rescue mission for the kidnapped Italian priest Giancarlo Bossi, but the MILF claims the attack was triggered by a violation of the ceasefire.

The MILF admits having caused the fatalities, but denies any part in the beheading. This complicates the situation. If the statement is true, then others have perpetrated the atrocity for their own ends.

Government sources suspect the Abu Sayyaf could have been responsible. But supposing the Abu Sayyaf denies involvement, who will the finger point? Are there invisible parties who would like to see a larger and bloodier war?

President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s order to the Armed Forces to hunt down those responsible is understandable, but redundant. It is a public display of anger, which is not necessarily synonymous with resolve, and does not ensure the rescue of Fr. Gossi or the end of the fighting.

The Armed Forces will do what they do best. They could fight this war to the last Marine. But we should all know by now that the military solution is no solution at all. Where both the Spanish colonizers and their American successors had failed, we cannot see the AFP doing any better.

The Moros will end their rebellion only when their reason for waging it disappears. That reason is scattered in the pages of our history from the time of Spanish colonization. It is not unknown to our historians, and our political leaders.

Until now, Manila’s political game plan has been to buy time. To postpone the effort to reach a permanent political solution, in the hope that the Moro rebels will finally have a change of heart, that the young mujahedins will simply stop coming, that they will begin to imitate their Christian counterparts elsewhere by migrating to richer foreign shores, that a powerful tsunami will wash away the problem, or that it will simply disappear as a result of climate change.

Ferdinand Marcos tried it first with the 1976 Tripoli Agreement. This was the agreement signed in Tripoli between the Government and the Moro National Liberation Front under Chairman Nur Misuari, on the grant of political autonomy to 14 provinces and 20 cities in Mindanao, subject to the consent of the inhabitants concerned. Put to a plebiscite in 1977, it was rejected by a majority of the provinces and cities covered by the agreement. The plebiscite resulted in the creation of two small autonomous regions.

In 1987, the Constitution provided for the creation of “autonomous regions in Muslim Mindanao and in the Cordilleras consisting of provinces, cities, municipalities, and geographical areas sharing common and distinctive historical and cultural heritage, economic and social structures, and other relevant characteristics within the framework of (the) Constitution and the national sovereignty as well as territorial integrity of the Republic of the Philippines.”

In 1989, Congress followed with an organic law creating the Autonomous Region for Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). But, as in 1977, an overwhelming majority of the provinces and cities polled rejected membership in the ARMM.

In 1996, President Fidel Ramos proposed the creation of a Special Zone of Peace and Development in the areas originally mentioned in the Tripoli Agreement. This was fast tracked in Congress, over the objections of many Mindanaoans, who complained lack of proper consultations.

I actively participated in the debates both on the floor of the Senate and on the ground, in Mindanao. I went around the area, speaking to various groups. I was the only sitting senator whom Misuari met not once, but twice, after my official position on the proposal had been circulated and read by various groups in Mindanao. Ramos had agreed to grant the MNLF so many concessions – concessions which I thought were questionable.

The question I asked then was: What happens if, after the agreement with the MNLF is implemented, the MILF should demand a separate settlement? What concessions could the government possibly give them which it had not already given to the MNLF?

That question remained unanswered. But it turned out be more prophetic and enduring than anything else that has been said about the Government’s future relationship with the MILF.

In the run-up to the 1998 presidential campaign, I visited Camp Abubakar, and had substantial talks with Haji Murad who received me in behalf of Chairman Salamat, who was out of camp at the time. I came home impressed that an honest to goodness autonomy for the Muslims would be satisfactory to the MILF, despite all the bold statements about carving a separate independent Muslim state in Mindanao.

Murad, however, shared a joke with me during that meeting. Wondering how I had come with only a couple of Muslim women guides and one civilian assistant, he said that Speaker Jose de Venecia had preceded my visit, with elaborate security arrangements, while then Vice President Joseph Ejercito Estrada had asked to visit, and that they were eager to receive him, except that they had sent him word they could not guarantee his safety during his travel. It was obviously intended to test Estrada’s resolve, and he never came.

When Estrada became President, he launched an “all-our war” to take Camp Abubakar. This began as an all-out assault on the Abu Sayyaf, which had been involved in some notorious kidnappings, including that of the American citizen Jeffrey Schilling.

On the eve of the all-out assault, Estrada received a letter from U.S. President Bill Clinton asking him not to carry out the attack, as it might endanger Schilling’s safety. The letter was hand carried to Estrada by U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen.

Estrada told Cohen it was too late to stop the attack. When Cohen suggested that Estrada at least talk to Clinton by phone, he said there was no point. Estrada later came to Abubakar, dressed in military uniform as Commander-in-Chief, after the military had taken over the camp, and marked the occasion by having a meal with the troops, where they served suckling pig, which offended the Muslims.

Arroyo subsequently reversed the policy by giving back the camp to the MILF. She also initiated the present talks with the rebels. But the policy has been an erratic one, marked by deviations and departures.

No conflict can permanently elude a solution. The Mindanao conflict is no exception. But the parties must now distinguish between peace talks that are intended to solve the problem and peace talks that are intended merely to allow the parties to say they are negotiating. Peace will never be achieved until the parties begin to deal with each other in absolute good faith, with the full intent of complying with every agreement, instead of trying to circumvent what has been agreed on.

At the 7th Doha Forum on Democracy, Development and Free Trade last April, I listened to South Africa’s former President Fredrick de Klerk respond to a question on how they were able to get rid of Apartheid. His answer was simple: Place yourself in the position of the other side, and try to understand why they want what they want.

Could we now imagine ourselves as Mindanao Muslims even for just a while? Could the government imagine itself as the militant forces it is trying to crush, liquidate or put behind bars?

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