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MILF invades Makati

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A few days ago, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front left the jungles of Mindanao and “invaded” the concrete jungles of Makati. They came in full force. Whether they stand to gain in this recent offensive, we will not be able to fully know yet.

But I liked what happened. I sat in, in tandem with SM Vice President Gil Gonzales who joined me. Just like many other Manila-based businessmen in the room, VP Gil must have been exposed to this exercise only for the first time.

It was not also a usual event. For the first time, the full peace negotiating panel of the MILF last Friday engaged representatives of big business right there in the latter’s hub and enclave: Makati. Unusual because there is no other rebel group anywhere in the world that I know of that meets with leaders of business and reveals its negotiating framework even while no settlement yet is in place and even answering questions to clarify. In the past, this was exclusively a panel-to-panel activity, done behind closed doors. Now, it’s in the public domain.

The forum was organized evidently to allow big business (and the public) to take a little peep and look at some factors around this “pestering problem” in the south. It was an effort to allow the rebel group a chance to present, albeit in an abridged version, what is the “bangsamoro aspiration ” that evidently moves its armed elements to fight government. It was also an occasion for the MILF to publicly disclose some facts about its negotiating position and its vision for a comprehensive political settlement that will implement radical changes in the south.

We know that the so-called establishment (big business being a formidable part) is always wary about changes in the status quo especially when it is kept in the dark about the “fundamentals and the variables”. Unknown factors or changes are always threatening. Business as we all know thrives only in assured and secured environments. This is not to mention the fact that big business somehow sways public policies and directions, for obvious reasons.

The Asian Institute of Management hosted the forum in cooperation with Mindanao Business Council, headed by my good friend, Businessman Vic Lao and the Mindanao People’s Caucus, headed by Lawyer Mary Ann Arnado.

There were other groups that helped like the International Alert UK.

The four-hour session was good. The exchange was open and frank. MILF Panel Chair Mohagher Iqbal set the ball rolling with an opening statement entitled: “The playing field is not level”. There he laid out the sordid predicament of generational exclusion suffered by the Moros and the undue dominance over their lives by the non-Moros.

He spoke of the system that denies the bangsamoro the benefit and the enjoyment of the rich resources of its homeland; the unitary governance system that neglects, stagnates and stunts development and the system of capitalism that evidently caters to the rich and the powerful at the expense of the “super poor”.

Then Mr. Iqbal went on to inform the forum that the MILF had already submitted its proposed comprehensive compact to the government peace panel that proposes the setting up of a state and sub-state relationship with the national government. This is in lieu of the failed Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain that the Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutional. (The difference being that the MOA-AD dealt solely on the ancestral domain issue, only one of the strands in the negotiations road map, while the new proposed compact is more comprehensive.)

Mr. Iqbal pointed out: “Clearly we are not seeking an independent state but something that the Moros can effectively govern themselves with little interference from the central government”. In the subsequent Q&A, he explained that an “associative relationship” vis-à-vis the national government and the bangsamoro governance unit is so because of the assumption that only Mindanao or a part of it may wish to adopt this new mode while Visayas and Luzon may prefer to remain with the present unitary and centralized setup. (Don’t bet on that. The rest of the country may also see the light.) Of course, although he did not categorically mention it, but these new arrangements require constitutional amendments.

On the issue of development which is badly needed at present in Moro areas while negotiations are still on going, Chair Iqbal was categorical: “More importantly, we want the Moro Question settled first before real development comes to our place. But this settlement is hard to secure; we need the help of everyone especially the business sector like all of you here.” So there.

Then the Q&A followed. My good friend and former colleague in Congress, panel member Datu Mike Mastura, in his usual passionate manner, was engaging everyone candidly, at times uncomfortably condescending just to drive home a point He was forceful in his assertions why the bangsamoro right to self determination is an inherent birth right of the moro.

Another panel member, Prof Abhoud Syed Lingga talked about the imperative of fiscal rationality re-assuring the business sector that in the event the proposed governance system is in place, businesses will be protected and enhanced within the area. He talked about the 7–year transition needed to set this in place. Also contributing their inputs were Panel members, Abdullah Camlian, Maulana “Bobby” Alonto and alternate member Datu Kinoc (my neighbor in Davao del Sur) representing the indigenous peoples. It was already past the hour but everyone stayed on.

In the meantime, let’s wait for the government panel’s own presentation to complete the picture. We are informed that GPH Chair Marvic Leonen and his panel are already in the process of completing the government’s own document by next month’s scheduled resumption. At this point, if this is a game of chess, the MILF has made its move and clearly disclosed its game plan. It’s GHP’s move now.

Unknown to many, these developments now are unprecedented. With the recent public engagement of the MILF, the government must equally respond, also publicly. When that happens, an interesting shift in the way peace negotiations are done will take place. It will be a shift from the usual "behind closed doors” mode to a public negotiations regime under the constant glare of public scrutiny every step of the way. This is not in the books.

From where I sit,I think this is a necessary, welcome and timely shift, considering what took place before. But surely this is a new challenge to the negotiators, knowing that they have to deal now not only with the other panel across the table but with the bigger – and most often - unwieldy public as well. It’s interesting to watch.

By Jess Dureza




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