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Fighting for Spratlys, giving up Mindanao?

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I don’t get it. The Aquino administration is willing to face the wrath of an emerging superpower with at least a million-strong army to uphold its sovereignty over a group of small islets and shoals in the middle of the South China Sea, but is ready to surrender sovereignty over most of Mindanao, an area once called the Land of Promise because of its abundant natural and mineral resources, to a ragtag army of perhaps a few hundred rebels that does not even have the full support of the Bangsamoro people?

There is reason to be worried in the midst of reports that President Benigno S. Aquino III may be willing to grant most of the demands of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in his bid to forge a peace agreement with the MILF splinter group of Al Raj Murad Ibrahim during his term, following the erstwhile secret meeting between the two leaders in Tokyo last August 4.

A few days after the meeting, the MILF said it was willing to give up its fight for independence in exchange for a Bangasamoro “substate,” which, according to MILF chief peace negotiator Mohagber Iqbal, would still be under Philippine sovereignty with “four layers of power and authority reserved for the central government which are foreign relations, national defense, currency and postal services, and residual power for the substate.”

However, the Manila Times revealed in a special report over the weekend that a document, titled “MILF Final Working Draft on Comprehensive Compact,” which has been submitted to Philippine chief peace negotiator Marvic Leomen for consideration, wants the Philippine government to declare the “original” Moro Province of Mindanao under the American colonial government as Bangsamoro Ancestral Domain where they will establish their own nation called the Bangsamoro State, which will be governed by a State Authority under a Chief Minister, a Deputy Chief Minister and several Ministers.

The MILF also demands the “reduction of the numbers and role of the Armed Forces” in Mindanao and wants to assume the task of ensuring internal security from the Philippine National Police. It also wants the Bangsamoro nation to be represented in the Philippine Senate by a senator who will be elected by the voters in the Bangsamoro State, a seat in the Philippine Supreme Court, two seats in the Court of Appeals and positions in constitutional bodies, departments, bureaus and government corporations in the “Central Government.”

The MILF, according to the Times report, also demands that the Philippine Government acknowledge the “legitimate grievances of the Bangsamoro People arising from any unjust dispossession of their territorial and proprietary rights, customary land tenures, or their marginalization” and when “restoration is no longer possible,” “effective measures or adequate reparations” be made. This was interpreted by many as the right of the Bangsamoro State to review and rescind, if necessary, existing land titles, sending fears to Christians and non-Islamic tribes living in the region.

Another cause of concern is that under the proposed Bangsamoro state, a constitution and laws would be crafted based on the “system of life” of the Bangsamoro, which would naturally be based on sariah laws, raising the distinct possibility of future confusion in case of a conflict between a Bangsamoro and a Christian.

Although the MILF emphasizes that the proposed Bangsamoro State is different from the Bangsamoro Juridical Entity (BJE) under the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domanin (MOA-AD) that the Arroyo Administration was about to sign with the MILF in Malaysia in August 2008 until it was stopped by the Supreme Court on constitutional grounds, a cursory look at their provisions would show that they are basically the same.

It is also important to remember that a few days after the MOA-AD, which was kept under wraps by the Arroyo government, was revealed by the media, violence erupted almost immediately in the conflict areas. After realizing that the Arroyo administration had promised what it could not deliver, the MILF started attacking and razing villages in the areas that were supposed to be covered by their ancestral domain under the failed MOA, resulting in the death of scores of soldiers and civilians, the scorching of homes and businesses, and the flight of townsfolk fearful of being caught in the middle of another war.

After a total of 41 people were killed and several villages were attacked in the provinces of Lanao del Norte and Sarangani, and the city of Iligan, Arroyo vowed to defend every inch of Philippine territory, the same land she was glad to give to the rebels under the MOA-AD without so much of a fight, allegedly in the name of peace.

While I have always advocated for peace in Mindanao to give it breathing room to recover both economically and socially, we should caution Aquino against a hasty decision in negotiating for peace. In his desire to forge a peace agreement during his term, he should consider the possibility that a harried peace pact with the MILF faction could instead lead to a bigger, multi-faceted war involving not only the MILF, but also the MILF Umbra Kato faction; the Moro National Liberation Front under chairman Nur Misuari which is holding separate talks with the government; the vigilante Christians, and possibly members of other indigenous tribes such as the Lamads and the Tausugs.

I have no objection to the establishment of an autonomous Bangsamoro emtity, if that is the way to lasting peace in Mindanao. But first, the people in the areas to be affected must be consulted before going into any agreement. Secondly, any provision of a peace treaty must conform with the Philippine Constitution. An autonomous region, such as the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) as provided for in the Tripoli Agreement with the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), is within the bounds of the Philippine Constitution. On the other hand, the provisions of the proposed agreement with the MILF aims to create a quasi-independent state as defined in the proposed federal system of government, but not under the 1987 Constitution.

Misuari, who is a former ARMM governor, correctly states that the proposed substate is a quasi-independent entity, which is above autonomy and just one step towards independence. He warned that the MILF looks at the proposed substate as a transitional mechanism towards the Bangsamoro people’s attainment of eventual independence.

Under the MILF proposal, the Bangsamoro State will have its own police force to maintain internal security. That would allow them to maintain a trained, well-organized and armed security force that can serve as the core of a military organization if they later decide to pursue full independence as feared by Misuari.

I still see the American card in all these developments. We must remember that prior to the bungled MOA-AD signing, the US State Department hired a group called United States Peace Initiative (UPIS) to undertake a project to help expedite a peace agreement between the Philippine government and the MILF. At that time, the recent efforts of then US Ambassador Kristie Kenney to win the hearts of the people of Mindanao became obvious, which is being continued by current US Ambassador Henry Thomas Jr.. MILF spokesman Eid Kabalu also revealed at that time that the US had asked them if they could build US bases in the proposed Bangsamoro state, to which the MILF reportedly said yes. This was the reason Ambassador Kenney was in Kuala Lumpur to witness the scheduled signing of the ill-fated MOA-AD.

The desire of the US to have military bases in Mindanao has become even more urgent with the current intensification of the conflict over control of the South China Sea, particularly the territorial dispute over the Spratly Islands. In the first place, it is inconceivable to think that Aquino went to meet the MILF chief in Tokyo without the knowledge of the US.

In any case, four decades after the first skirmishes in Mindanao between the MNLF rebels and the government, and 14 years after the renewed peace negotiations started between the MILF and the government started, peace remains elusive in Mindanao.

If Aquino is really serious about finding peace in Mindanao, he should look at the root cause of the Mindanao problem. It is not just that the Muslims want their own state. The decades-old rebellion is caused by a deep-rooted dissatisfaction with the central government. They feel neglected, and rightfully so, because government resources have only come in trickles for decades, even with the establishment of the ARMM based on the 1976 Tripoli Agreement.

For starters, the government should fully implement the 1976 agreement signed in Libya with Misuari and make sure that the ARMM is run by people who wouldn’t use the region’s resources for their selfish ends, as what the Ampatuans did during Arroyo’s term.

If the government could give the people of Mindanao a reason to believe that they are not being left behind and ignored, the rebellion would die naturally. Once progress comes knocking at the doors of Mindanao, there should be no more reason for people to rise in arms. The Muslims in Malaysia co-exist peacefully and progressively with Christians and Hindus, why can’t the Filipino Muslims do the same if they are satisfied with the government? The same is true with the nagging communist rebellion. If the government were less corrupt and more sincere, the NPA would have no more disgruntled youths to recruit.

Is that expecting too much from the Aquino administration?

By Val G. Abelgas




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