MANILA - Four days after President Benigno Aquino met in Tokyo with leaders of
the rebel Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the main Muslim separatist
group in the Philippines, a series of firefights between the rebel group and
one of its breakaway factions broke out in the southern Philippines, killing at
least 14 people and displacing thousands from their homes.
The violence dampened the optimism that was raised by the August 4 secret
meeting between Aquino and Al Haj Murad Ibrahim, the MILF's chairman. The
meeting was significant as it was rare for a Philippine head of state to meet
with the leader of a rebel group before the signing of any official peace
accord. The men talked for nearly two hours at a hotel near Narita airport in
Japan, giving a significant boost to the until now stalled peace
process. Government officials said it was Aquino who sought the meeting.
The fighting left no doubt among many Filipinos that the conflict in the
southern island of Mindanao will not be resolved easily. Now more than ever,
analysts say, the government needs to demonstrate a willingness to offer a
sincere and comprehensive solution, if only to avoid a repeat in previous
negotiations in which peace initiatives were undermined by factionalism.
Indeed, the MILF was born of an internal split when rebels led by Hashim
Salamat broke away from the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) in 1977.
"The fighting in recent days underscores the very delicate nature of this whole
process," said Julkipli Wadi, dean of the Institute of Islamic Studies at the
University of the Philippines. "The government should take this matter
seriously. Whatever agreement that will come out of the peace negotiations
should be comprehensive. Otherwise, the rebels will revert to separatism" and
those who are against the MILF might unite to form a new rebel group, Wadi
On Monday, during the resumption of formal negotiations in Kuala Lumpur,
Malaysia, the government peace panel presented its counter-proposal to the
MILF's draft "comprehensive agreement". Marvic Leonen, the chief government
negotiator, said the government's proposal will contain a formula for a
comprehensive and lasting peace in Mindanao and seek to change historical
impressions among Muslim Filipinos, many of whom have long complained of
dispossession and marginalization by the Christian-dominated central government
During his speech at the opening of talks, Leonen described the government's
counter-proposal as a "work in progress" that is "honestly different" from the
MILF's peace pitch. "I would rather that the proposals be different: honestly
different. It is only then that the issues that truly matter to both sides can
be given more space at this negotiating table," Leonen said. "Both have agreed
that the implementation of any agreement should happen within the current
administration. Both agreed to fast track the negotiations."
In the recent fighting, MILF forces fought with former members who broke away
after MILF leaders signed an earlier Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral
Domain (MOA-AD) which would have paved the way for a final compact on the
conflict. This faction opposed the agreement, arguing that it fell short of the
rebel group's long held aspiration of a separate state for Filipino Muslims.
The MILF has been waging a secessionist war since 1977, but since the late
1990s has been open to a negotiated political settlement with the government.
That Aquino and Murad met on August 4 was not a coincidence. It was the same
day in 2008 that the Philippine Supreme Court controversially ruled for a
restraining order on the yet-to-be-signed MOA-AD and later ruled that terms of
the agreement violated the constitution. The annulment raised howls from the
MILF and praise from nationalists who feared a dismemberment of the republic. A
new round of armed hostilities between the government and MILF erupted soon
after the initial Supreme Court ruling, leaving 300 dead and 600,000 internally
Mohagher Iqbal, the head of the MILF peace panel, said in a phone interview
last week that the Tokyo meeting was one of the most significant steps
undertaken so far by both sides. "It signifies that the two leaders are really
dead-set on pursuing the negotiations," Iqbal said. The MILF's new
"Comprehensive Compact" proposal, first aired in September 2010, aims to create
a "substate" for ethnic Moro Muslims. Similar to federal states in the United
States, the proposed substate would have a large degree of autonomy but defer
to Manila on matters of national defense and foreign affairs, among other
centrally controlled areas.
A substate, Iqbal said, would be no different from a federal state but unlike
the government's previous agreement with the MNLF, whose forces were integrated
into the mainstream government, the MILF will insist on "an equal relationship"
with the government where it controls its own territory and runs its own
The only question now is how to make sure that the substate solution will not
go the way of the annulled MOA-AD. There seems to be no debate that the only
way to legally create the MILF's proposed substate would be through an
amendment to the constitution. While recognizing Aquino's sincerity, the MILF
side is still skeptical that the president has the political will to initiate
such an amendment, which has been unpopular with nationalist groups in the
Although the president's political party controls a majority in the Philippine
Congress, it has not made any determined effort yet to push for the necessary
constitutional amendments to make the sub-state plan legally viable.
"The problem with the Philippine government, beginning with the one led by the
president's mother, is it looks at the 1987 constitution as sacred," Iqbal
said, referring to Corazon Aquino, whose revolutionary government after the
fall of Ferdinand Marcos drafted the present constitution.
Legal experts also have their doubts. The substate proposal "seems like a
rehash of the annulled MOA-AD, which is bound to violate the existing
constitution," said Harry Roque, a professor of constitutional law at the
University of the Philippines, referring to the ancestral domain agreement.
"The president has the political capital, the popularity and the clout to push
for amendments," Wadi said. "But we're not sure yet if the president is willing
to take the cha-cha, perhaps in deference to his mother," the professor said,
referring to "charter change." But, as the Tokyo meeting has shown, "he did
take the first step for peace. I hope he follows it with another step, and then
Bong Montesa, a legal adviser to the government peace panel during the time of
president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, believes that "there is no substantial
difference between the Comprehensive Compact, the MOA-AD (Memorandum of
Agreement on Ancestral Domain) and other similar agreements."
These proposals, he said, "all flow from a particular view of what the problem
is and how it can be solved. For the MILF, and they have been fairly
consistent, the problem is political - the illegal and unjust incorporation of
the [Moro] people into the Philippine state. The solution therefore is also
political - the exercise of self-determination by the [Moro] people."
He called the MILF's strategy as "one of incrementalism and pragmatism". "While
proposals may vary in some details from time to time, the end goals have always
been the same: a political agreement that will fundamentally reshape the
present relationship between the Filipino people and the Moro people," Montesa
It is too early to say if these developments will end the decades-old conflict
in Mindanao, as the rebellion by MILF combatants against a previous government
deal has made clear. And it is probably too early in the negotiations to say
for sure that the MILF has dropped definitively its calls for a separate Moro
"What is not separatist is the draft they offered to the Philippine government.
Independence, however, remains to be part of its options," predicted former
government negotiator Montesa. "Being separatist or not cannot be frozen in
time. The MILF can always go back to a call for independence if the current
negotiations do not gain headway or if its constituencies and commanders on the
ground change their minds."
Carlos H Conde is the freelance correspondent in Manila for The New York
Times and The International Herald Tribune. He may be reached at[email protected]or at www.facebook.com/carlosconde.ph
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