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ADVOCACY MindaNOW: Calvary for BBL & Peace Negotiators 

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/05 April) — Christianity’s traditional annual “Calvary” is over now.  But for the peace workers and the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law, the long road of Calvary is still continuing.

When Philippine chief peace negotiator, Prof. Miriam “Iye” Coronel – Ferrer called me by phone soon after Mamasapano to clarify certain points on the “coordination” issue hounding the incident, I clearly recalled my parting words for her. I told her: “Iye, I dread being in your shoes at this time”.

“CATCH 22.”  Indeed, I was in those very same shoes before as peace negotiating panel chair from 2001 to 2003. I tell you, it’s not an easy job. Worse, it’s a thankless job. It puts one in a  “catch 22” situation, meaning whichever way a negotiator goes, he or she is in a bind and in an unenviable position.  Why so? Simply because the task is not only to negotiate with the armed rebels on the OTHER SIDE of the negotiating table. Unknown to many, the equally difficult task is the “negotiations” that a negotiator must do with those on the SAME SIDE of his table. Meaning, your own colleagues in government and the public at large who usually disdain giving favors or concessions to armed rebels who are understandably perceived as “enemies” or the “bad guys” who blackmail government.  Let’s not forget: rebels take up arms because they cannot get redress for grievances within the normal system or they use the force of arms to seek demands. Hence negotiating with them to forge agreements is a tricky and sensitive work. Most important of all, factor in the fact that all rebels (MILF, CPP-NPA-NDF, MNLF) consider it a matter of negotiating principle that they do NOT adhere to nor do they operate within the ambit of our laws and Philippine Constitution while our own government negotiators MUST NOT go beyond those sacrosanct parameters. How to navigate this is inscrutable to ordinary mortals. But negotiators must somehow find a way.

FOR PRINCIPAL.  The negotiator represents a principal, in our case, the Philippine president no less, who in turn represents all Filipinos. This is not only true for the government negotiators. This also applies to MILF negotiators. MILF chief negotiator Mohaqher Iqbal merely represents his own principal MILF Chair Murad Ibrahim and the MILF Central Committee, the equivalent of government’s Cabinet and its claimed followings of Bangsamoro people.

PRIOR APPROVALS. During my time, a general but comprehensive framework with a negotiating strategy must first be formulated to be approved by the principal, the President with the concurrence of the Cabinet thru its Security Cluster. And every time there were important agreements to be forged in the course of the negotiations, I had to get approvals first   before I could commit important consensus points to the other panel. There were specific instances of periodic consultations as new factors and points emerged in the course of the peace talks. In fact there were instances where I would find it more difficult to “negotiate” with our government side than with the rebels across the table.   There were times where it took President Arroyo herself no less to over-rule some Cabinet opposition for me to have the authority to “go ahead” in order to break some impasse in the talks or avert a breakdown.

PROTOCOLS. I remember one instance when I was already in Malaysia about to sign a document with the MILF. Due to some objections by some cabinet officials who were all in Manila, I had to suspend the signing ceremony and took the first plane out to Manila where I had a quick huddle with the Cabinet Security Cluster then flew back on the same day to Kuala Lumpur when things were clarified. Of course, these protocols were required due to the nature and implications of signed agreements.

“MINI MAX.” Generally, before the panel embarked on a foreign trip (usually to Malaysia or to Libya) to attend a round of negotiations, the negotiating positions in the agenda item for that meeting were discussed and cleared and the panel given the mandate to negotiate and commit.  There was such a thing as “mini-max” in negotiations, getting inputs coming from government agencies and the Cabinet with a range of options from the minimum to the maximum. Anything “in between”, the panel can commit. Anything “beyond the max” will have to get prior clearance or approval. In other words, a negotiator works on the basis of what has been authorized and processed. This was the procedure during my time.

I could not tell how the Aquino panel did its work.  But  I was surprised to know that the  BBL that was finalized, signed and sealed by the two panels, had to be retrieved, re-drafted and “cleaned up”‘ by Malacanang before the final version was submitted to Congress. I wondered why:  either Malacanang did not monitor closely and just gave the negotiators a free hand or the Chair Iye’s panel exceeded its mandate. Or it was pure hubris only to be shaken back to reality by Mamasapano?

But I can tell you that the work of a negotiator is not an easy job. One usually walks a tight rope. And in the eyes of the public, any error in judgment is the negotiators’ responsibility. The whole government though must bear responsibility — the President primarily.

IN DEFENSE OF FERRER. With Mamasapano, the whole scenario was radically altered. While during our time the Filipinos at large were not too keen and focused on the peace negotiations except for the affected sectors, today an angry and awakened sector at large must be mollified.  Mamasapano was a monkey wrench. I just could not picture myself now in the shoes of Chair Ferrer with all the challenges she and all the peace negotiators and peace workers are now facing. Truth to tell, I credit her for her composure and clarity  in defending and explaining  the collective outcome of a difficult, tedious and crafty procedure   that is now  being publicly scrutinized, torn to pieces — even  demonized.

DEFEND PACT. It is not fair that  we should  take it personally against  Chair Ferrer for standing pat on the signed documents, as she is being pilloried today. Having forged an agreement  together with the MILF negotiators, she  is duty bound to stand by it and defend it. For her to do so does not mean she’s  taking the side of the MILF as she is unfairly charged. In the same vein,  MILF Chair Mohaqher Iqbal has to defend the same agreement and MILF should not, in the same vein, charge him of being pro-government. They jointly forged an agreement and they had to stand by it, no matter what. If  Chair Ferrer is being  ” roasted” by the public after she worked hard to get a peace settlement, Chair Iqbal will get more roasting from the MILF if he too falters, for sure.

RESIGN? At a critical time like this, there is a call for  Chair Ferrer  to resign. Perhaps that can be the most expedient escape from it all  but to me, that’s the last thing a negotiator should do at this time. One worth her salt does not dismount at the time when she is most needed to give clarity to a muddled situation, however difficult or inscrutable the work appears to be, however tempting and convenient it would be to leave  and go back to quiet private life. This  is a time to work and face the music. There is another time to call it quits and quietly dismount. I trust Chair “Iye”‘will continue to hold her ground as she does — and which she must.

MY OWN STORY. I have my own story about resignations to tell, although a bit different from what Chair Ferrer is facing today. When the Arroyo government assumed office in 2001, the peace process was in disarray. I was appointed as the chief negotiator  with the principal task of restoring the abandoned peace talks due to the Mindanao “war” policy of former President Estrada. Within a short period,  we signed the  framework “agreement for peace” in Tripoli, Libya in a few months to re-start and pick up the pieces for the resumption of peace talks. For two years, we signed other milestone agreements.

I RESIGNED. Things went well until 2003 when something happened. I was on the verge of resigning in a huff  as chief negotiator due to an incident.  I  refused to put my concurring signature on a prepared “Minutes” that was presented to me containing points I did not concur in during our meeting. It was handed to me for signature by MILF’s Musib Buat when I was already back home in Manila . Normally, Minutes of Meetings were discussed to the last comma before heading back home. This one was different. But instead of totally refusing to sign, I annotated the minutes with some notes. This ruffled the feelings of the MILF and the Malaysian facilitators and they said I altered the minutes. Because of this,  I was convinced that   my effectivity as negotiator was seriously undermined. But I refused to immediately resign or  dismount at that time because it would be disruptive of the over-all peace efforts.  It took another subsequent incident  (an attack by MILF on Siocon town of Zamboanga del Norte) and a lull in the peace talks that gave me an excuse to hand in my resignation to the President. Sec. Silvestre “Yong” Afable took over from me but he also eventually resigned too. Then retired Army Gen. Rodolfo “Rudy” Garcia took over from Sec. Yong in whose watch, the Supreme Court ruled the “Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain” (MOA AD) as unconstitutional.  I also served  the OPAPP position only to turn it over to Sec. Hermogenes Esperon when I became Press Secretary.

BANGSAMORO DREAM. An additional note. When MOA-AD was signed and later declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, although I was no longer at OPAPP but at the Malacanang press office as press secretary, I aggressively defended and explained the MOA-AD knowing the implications of depriving the Bangsamoro an opportunity to achieve its long dream and aspiration of self-governance and self-determination.  But what I cannot still understand up to now is why our present government panel and the MILF did not learn from the lessons of the failed MOA AD and merely re-languaged those provisions that failed the constitutional test.  Well, all those are behind me now. I have now the luxury of just reminiscing and viewing things from a distance — but definitely not in a detached manner given that what happens to the Bangsamoro aspirations will affect me and the rest of the nation

CALVARY. Today, how we deal with the present challenges and discordant noises involving the proposed BBL will be crucial. But in the meantime, it is still a continuing  Calvary for Chair Iye Ferrer, together with all those who work for peace — including  the BBL as well. Whether BBL’s  “crucifixion” will eventually come now or later is of no moment. Whatever happens in the unsettled maze of Mamasapano, I am confident that all peace efforts are bound to somehow “resurrect“. Maybe not now. But inevitably later.  (MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Atty. Dureza’s piece is from his syndicated column, Advocacy MindaNOW).

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