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The Mindanao Peace Process: A British perspective

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In my blog last week I noted the British Government’s interest in the Mindanao Peace Process. I’m going to use this week’s blog (and next week’s) to offer some personal reflections on this important issue for the Philippines.

The reasons for the UK’s interest in the peace process are straightforward. The Philippines is an important partner for the UK in ASEAN, but it will not achieve its full potential politically or economically while there is violent conflict within its borders. It’s clear too that with our traditional support for human rights, democracy and freedom, Britain should wish to see an end to the injustices and human rights violations that have blighted Muslim Mindanao for many years.

There’s another, crucial reason why we are involved – it’s at the invitation of both the main parties to the conflict. In 2008/9, we worked intensively to share best practice from the UK’s own successful experience of conflict resolution in Northern Ireland – a conflict with several centuries more history behind it than Mindanao. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair visited the Philippines; the peace panels of both the Government of the Philippines (GPH) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) visited the Northern Irish capital Belfast and London. When later in 2009 the GPH and MILF decided to set up an International Contact Group of other governments and international NGOs, the British Government was on both their lists, and we willingly accepted the invitation to join.

The International Contact Group – ICG for short – is essentially an advisory body, observing the peace negotiations, and assisting the parties and the Malaysian facilitator of the talks when asked to do so. It’s not had a high media profile – rightly so, because it’s not a party to the conflict. But without breaking confidences, I can say that on more than one occasion it has worked to ensure that the talks did not break down – under this administration, and the previous one.

There are many superficial parallels between the conflicts in Mindanao and Northern Ireland. And there are some fundamental differences too. But there are some genuinely useful lessons to be taken from the way we managed the peace negotiations in Northern Ireland. I believe these are relevant here in the Philippines. (And incidentally, Britain doesn't have a monopoly on that experience. Dominic Hannigan TD, chair of the Irish Parliament's committee on the Good Friday Agreement, is currently in the Philippines as part of a volunteering programme with NGO VSO, sharing ideas with a wide range of groups and individuals on peace building. We had a good meeting last week.)

Perhaps the most obvious lesson is that apparently intractable conflicts can be solved. As a child I grew up in mainland Britain with acts of violence and terrorism in Northern Ireland regularly leading the evening TV news. Like many others I formed the view that this was a conflict that was doomed by history to run and run. You could manage it, but not resolve it. The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 proved that that was not the case. Hopefully that’s a message that has already been taken on board here – after all, agreement has been tantalisingly close in the past. Here are three more lessons.

First, talking is an end in itself. You can’t reach agreements if you’re not communicating. Here in the Philippines the Mindanao peace talks are conducted very much in the full glare of the media spotlight. There’s more than one reason why I don’t think that’s always a good thing. One of them is that it tends to raise expectations of what each round of talks will achieve – and increases disappointment and disillusion when those expectations are not met. Sometimes, the fact that the talks simply took place and the parties agreed to come back again is enough. (But no, you can’t talk forever – at least if you want to take advantage of the window of opportunity afforded by the Aquino administration.)

Second, to make peace, leaders need to invest political capital and take risks. And they need to be prepared to take some flak for doing so. Tony Blair was criticised when he first met Republican leaders (the “rebels” – in the Philippine context) – but it proved a crucial piece in the jigsaw of engagement and building of trust. So I was personally heartened when I read of President Aquino’s surprise visit to Tokyo to meet MILF leader Ebrahim Murad. To me that was a bold and imaginative move (by both men), that signals a determination to move the talks forward and make peace. The criticism from different quarters simply confirms the boldness of what the President did. I hope he will continue to invest political capital in the peace process, and that the negotiators on both sides will display similar creativity and ambition.

Third, a signed peace agreement won’t necessarily bring peace straight away. In many ways, the agreement is the end of one chapter in the peace process and the start of another. The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 was truly historic, but it was followed by many new political challenges within Northern Ireland. Only with the follow-up St. Andrew’s Agreement of 2004 were the political foundations fully in place. And it took until 2010 to transfer to the Northern Ireland Assembly responsibility for policing and justice. Today, the province still faces a threat from dissident Republican terrorist groups, who reject the Agreements. But those dissidents have no significant community support. They are a challenge to law and order; but the peace process is solid. The dissidents want to turn back the clock; but most people in Northern Ireland are looking forward.

Translate that third point into the Philippines’ context, and I draw a couple of conclusions. It’s right to go all out for a comprehensive peace agreement if you can – but expect still to have to deal with problems after that. It might even be better to leave some of those problems to resolve later if it means being able to seal the initial deal while the political conditions are right. As for the dissidents – I think it’s almost inevitable that there will be splinter groups as and when the MILF reach agreement with the GPH. That will be a serious challenge, as it already is with the case of Commander Umbra Kato. It will have to be managed – including by ensuring that such groups lack broader community support. But it should also not divert attention from the core task of building peace and reaching an agreement.

I’d welcome feedback on these ideas – positive or negative. In my next blog I will offer some personal reflections on the KL peace talks, and whether the positions of the two parties are as far apart as some people claim. Without giving too much away now, I’m not sure they are.

Media reporting of the Mindanao peace process is pretty downbeat at the moment. At their meeting in Tokyo, President Aquino and MILF Chairman Murad agreed to fast track peace negotiations. But at the following round of talks in Kuala Lumpur those negotiations almost came off the rails. “Heaven and earth” is the term that has been used to contrast the positions of the two parties. It’s become the favourite soundbite from the KL meeting. But is the pessimism warranted?

Much attention has been focused on the issue of constitutional reform. And on this issue, the two parties are poles apart – no argument. The MILF are clear that charter change is a prerequisite for genuine self-governance in Muslim Mindanao. The GPH by contrast believe the same goal can be achieved within the framework of the 1987 Constitution. They’re not exactly saying “no constitutional reform - ever”, but their message seems clear enough for now: this isn’t a viable way forward amid current political realities.

This isn’t a small issue by any stretch. But let’s be clear that constitutional reform (if needed), is a means to an end, not the end itself. To make progress, it may be necessary to set sights more firmly on the ends – the desired goals or outcomes of the peace process – and then come back to the means of achieving them. And if we focus on the outcomes, perhaps the gulf between the two parties isn’t as wide as many commentators would suggest.

Part of the problem is that the MILF and GPH proposals are in very different forms: the MILF have tabled a detailed line-by-line agreement; the GPH have offered a broader conceptual framework. The difference of form risks obscuring possible convergences in the content. Fortunately, the summaries of their positions which both parties have published, plus press comments by members of the respective peace panels make some comparisons possible. At the risk of further complication, I’ll present the issues in a third way: “Past, Present & Future”. Let me explain.

First, the past. The MILF are clear that this process is about righting historical wrongs against the Moro people. The GPH have recognised the Moros’ legitimate grievances and the need to acknowledge their distinct identity, and suggested more intensive exploration of the historical issues as the third stage in a three-part peace process. Whether the MILF want to take that approach remains to be seen – but certainly in Northern Ireland, the political agreements of 1998 and 2004 have made it possible to start to work through some painful historical issues, including those of the more recent past like the Bloody Sunday shootings of 1972.

Next, the present. The MILF call the ARMM a bankrupt institution. They want it replaced, not reformed. The GPH are less explicit on this point, but have acknowledged that the ARMM in its current form has failed as a vehicle for empowerment. They have admitted to “multiple other possibilities for regional autonomy”. Whatever the future form of autonomy, they want to boost development and undertake other capacity-building within the existing ARMM, on the grounds that without this, any future form of self-governance will not prosper. The appointment of an OIC administration in the ARMM can be seen as providing a window of opportunity to do that. OK – that’s not the way the MILF would approach matters, but for their part they have spoken of some kind of “Interim Period” before full establishment of a new entity. In short, both are talking about a staged approach towards a new dispensation in Muslim Mindanao.

Which takes us to the future – or the shape of a new entity, to replace the ARMM. On this, there seem to me to be three big questions, namely territorial coverage, division of powers between Manila and the new entity, and resource sharing. (There’s also the not insignificant issue of what to call the new entity.) These are difficult issues, but both sides have presented positions on them, allowing for the start of a conversation. Let’s take them, briefly, in turn.

Territory. The MILF want a bigger Bangsamoro region than the ARMM. Their position on this remains pretty much as set out in the MOA-AD. The GPH have suggested procedures for additional communities to join the region, for example through local government initiatives and plebiscite. Although they have not offered lists of places to be included, that opens the possibility of a region encompassing more of Muslim Mindanao than the ARMM. In that case, there’s a clear basis for a negotiation about exactly how much more, what the legal processes and safeguards would be to achieve this, and how to handle communities who do not want to be included.

Power-sharing. The MILF are not seeking independence (a point many commentators appear reluctant to accept). But they are seeking much more political power for the new entity. In the UK context, we call this devolution. We have “reserved powers” that remain with the Westminster government in London, and “devolved powers” (also called “transferred powers” in Northern Ireland), which represent the areas of legislative competence of the administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (which we call “devolved administrations”). The MILF for their part have made clear those powers which should be reserved to Manila; by definition, everything else devolves to the new administration in Muslim Mindanao. The GPH have come up with their own counter-proposal. Not surprisingly perhaps, the GPH list is longer than the MILF’s – but that very fact itself provides the basis for another negotiation. To aid that negotiation, and perhaps to avoid re-inventing wheels, there are many international models of devolution or regional autonomy already in place: not just Scotland or Wales, but Hong Kong and Macao in China, Catalonia in Spain, Flanders in Belgium, Aceh in Indonesia – among others.

And the picture is not dissimilar on the question of resource sharing between centre and region. Again, a more radical proposal from the MILF, a more cautious (or rather, less specific) one from the GPH. But once again, since the GPH has accepted the principle of wealth sharing, they are in a position to engage with the MILF on their more detailed proposals.

Now let’s be clear: none of these issues are straightforward. Contained within them are a host of very tricky sub-issues - like who’s responsible for security in a new entity, how the rights of minority groups will be protected or the role of Shariah law. Neither can the question of ends (including whether or not to reform the Constitution) be separated indefinitely from that of means. What seems plain to me, however, is that differences of political approach and language notwithstanding, there are sufficient points of convergence in what the two parties have proposed to make a successful negotiation a realistic proposition.

Perhaps it will take some new approaches in order to seal the deal – set-piece talks across a table are important, but they may not be sufficient in themselves to build the understanding and to close gaps. There may need to be many and more intensive private talks, in different formations and locations, to hammer out these different areas one by one – until there’s sufficient basis for a full agreement. As in any negotiation, there will have to be trade-offs and concessions, by both parties. In Tokyo, President Aquino and Chairman Murad emphasised the need for a problem-solving approach. For me, that’s what this is all about. 

(Editor's note: This unedited material is from the blog of the British ambassador to the Philippines, whose government is part of the International Contact Group of the peace process on Mindanao.)

By Stephen Lillie
British ambassador to Manila




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