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COMMENTARY: Mindanao peace process: Not too fast

GENERAL SANTOS CITY (MindaNews / 16 Oct) – Indeed, the signing of the initial peace agreement between the Philippine government under President Benigno Aquino III and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) was historic although not an unprecedented one.

In the 40 years of internecine war in most parts of the southern and western parts of Mindanao, there were two peace agreements reached and another that almost got under way.

These agreements, the 1976 Tripoli Agreement and the 1996 Jakarta Peace Accords, were between the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the Marcos regime and the MNLF and the Ramos government respectively. The botched Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain would have been the third of this kind, but the first involving the MILF.

Past Philippine presidents have always regarded the MILF as a breakaway group from the MNLF that can easily be dealt with militarily until the total capitulation of Misuari in 1996.

When the 1976 Tripoli Agreement was signed in Libya with deposed strongman Muammar Khaddafy as its principal broker and backer, many field commanders and senior leaders of the MNLF saw the accord as a ruse and a trap.

The late Salamat Hashim wasted no time in seceding from the MNLF to form the MILF and pursued a path to more radical solution to the centuries-old Mindanao conflict.

Salamat would later be vindicated as the Marcos regime made a sham of the Tripoli Agreement, prompting MNLF chair Nur Misuari to resume fighting against the government.

By the time Misuari realized he fell into the trap laid out by the deposed dictator, the MILF had already made significant headway in recruiting disgruntled senior MNLF commanders and young ideological Muslim scholars.

In 1996, Misuari finally settled for the 1996 Jakarta Peace Accord for which the MNLF was promised greater autonomy. But like the 1976 Tripoli Agreement, the Jakarta Peace Accord was never meant to give the Bangsamoro the right to full self-determination. They still were left to the mercy of a Congress dominated by landlords and big business who saw any political accommodation of the Moro people as threat to their continued reign in Mindanao. The promise of genuine autonomy was reduced to the granting of ministerial powers that only went to the traditional adversaries of the Moro rebels, the Moro warlords and politicians.

Misuari, after serving a term as governor of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, would eventually lose his pre-eminent role in the Bangsamoro struggle.

President Fidel Ramos also tried to reach out to the MILF by initiating peace negotiations with the Moro rebel group that had already surpassed the armed strength of the MNLF with whom he signed a peace agreement. But Ramos ran out of time.

His successor, former President Joseph Estrada, instead of pursuing peace, chose a path of destruction by ordering an all-out war with the MILF. President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who succeeded him, did the same only to cave in to pressures for a negotiated political settlement with the MILF.

In 2008, the Arroyo government and the MILF were close to signing the MOA-AD. But it came at a time when President Arroyo’s credibility ratings were at their lowest and suspicions that she was using the peace pact as a medium to amend the Constitution and perpetuate herself in power only reinforced the position of the anti-Moro block in Congress as well as local government officials.

The well-intentioned MOA-AD did not even get past the Supreme Court where its opponents sought legal relief. It was declared unconstitutional and its defeat immediately plunged parts of predominant Muslim Mindanao areas to the brink of civil war.

The botched MOA-AD signing also drove a wedge inside the MILF with senior MILF commander Ameril Umra Kato forming his own Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighter (BIFF).

The MILF has come full circle.

On Monday, the MILF agreed to a Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro (FAB). Far from being a peace deal, however, the initial agreement is largely a broad stroke document where the MILF practically left the future of its struggle for self-determination in the hands of Congress although the creation of Bangsamoro to replace ARMM is already a moral victory for the MILF as the word literally means “Moro nation.”

The organic act that will create the new autonomous political entity (NPE) to embody the aspiration of the Moro people, unfortunately, is within the realm of political reality where their previous leaders have failed before.

How the present MILF leadership will be able to reverse the history of capitulation, surrender and betrayal that led to the failures of their past struggles is a task Chairman Murad Al haj Ebrahim and the rest of the central committee members cannot afford to fail.

The FAB is just the first step to a long journey for peace in Mindanao.

Ending the war is way easier than achieving a just and lasting peace.

Now the hardest part of the quest for peace begins.

(Edwin G. Espejo writes for www.asiancorrespondent.com.)

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