PHILIPPINES: GOVERNMENT TO SIGN DEAL WITH MILF

PHILIPPINES: GOVERNMENT TO SIGN DEAL WITH MILF

The provincial government of North Cotabato, a predominantly Christian province of Mindanao, Southern Philippines, has petitioned the Supreme Court to issue a Temporary Restraining Order to stop the Philippine government signing a secret deal with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) on 5 August that would expand the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao and give the Muslim entity all the elements of a state. MILF rejects accusations that the deal is secret, saying that the details will be released as soon as the deal is signed.

The expanded Muslim area -- which will be called the Bangsamoro Juridical Entity -- will not be under the jurisdiction of the Philippine government and is set to incorporate some 712 villages (subject to plebiscite) across swaths of North Cotabato, Sultan Kudarat, Lanao del Norte, Zamboanga Sibugay and Palawan as well as the cities of Cotabato and Isabela, the capital of Basilan island.

North Cotabato Governor Jesus Sacdalan and Vice Governor Emmanuel Pinol want the court to compel government negotiators, particularly presidential peace adviser Hermogenes Esperon, to release details of the agreement for consultation before it is signed. (Link 1)

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On Thursday 24 July, representatives from the Government of the Republic of Philippines (GRP) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) met in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to finalise a Memorandum of Agreement (MoA) on Ancestral Domain and set a date for its official signing.

Despite the breakthrough that had been made on 16 July, the negotiations broke down and MILF walked out. But the government negotiators drew the rebels back to the table and at 8:15pm on Sunday 27 July GPR chief negotiator Rodolfo Garcia and his MILF counterpart, Mohagher Iqbal, signed a joint communique settling the issue of ancestral domain. Ancestral domain -- the final and most contentious aspect of the Tripoli Agreement of 2001 -- has been in the agenda of GRP-MILF Peace Talks since December 2004.

Failing a Supreme Court intervention, the Memorandum of Agreement (MoA) on Ancestral Domain will be formally signed in Kuala Lumpur on Tuesday 5 August.

Theoretically this should pave the way for a Comprehensive Compact Agreement (CCA) between the GRP and MILF. However the path between the MoA and a future CCA is fraught with obstacles that could themselves be triggers for conflict.

In January 2008 the Philippines' Department of Justice (DOJ) warned that some provisions of the draft MoA were unconstitutional and threatened the sovereignty of the Philippines. (Link 2)

Emmanuel Pinol, the vice governor of North Cotabato province, recently warned that if the MoA is signed, "There will be chaos and it will be bloody." (Link 3)

"BREAKTHROUGH" ON ANCESTRAL DOMAIN

The Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) was first established in 1990 pursuant to a constitutional mandate to provide for an autonomous area in Muslim Mindanao Southern Philippines. In a 1989 plebiscite held in thirteen provinces and nine cities of Southern Philippines, only four provinces -- Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi -- elected to be part of the new province of ARMM. Cotabato City was designated the capital.

In 2001 a law was passed to enable the expansion of the ARMM subject once again to plebiscite. Only Marawi City and Basilan -- but not its capital, Isabela City -- elected to be integrated with the ARMM. Understandably, Christian dominated provinces have repeatedly rejected incorporation into the ARMM.

MILF has long demanded that some 1,000 barangays (villages) in Central Mindanao be added to the ARMM and that this not be subject to plebiscite. The breakthrough in negotiations came on 16 July when the government agreed to adding 712 barangays, subject to plebiscite, to the Muslim entity in exchange for MILF dropping the word "freedom" from the draft MoA, supposedly to indicate a rejection of separatism.

MILF agreed to stay silent on "freedom" after talking with Datuk Othman Abd.

Razak, Adviser to the Prime Minister of Malaysia, who reminded them that all the previous documents, including the General Framework of Intent signed on 27 August 1998 and the Tripoli Agreement of 2001, contained the word "freedom".

As the Philippine Daily Inquirer notes: "The insistence by the MILF Panel on the inclusion of the phrase 'non derogation of prior agreements' more than makes up for the silence on 'freedom' because this binds both parties to all previous agreements in which freedom is cited as a major principle." (Link 4)

The GRP's insistence that all prospective new territory be subject to plebiscite has also long been a sticking point for MILF. Past plebiscites have not worked in MILF's favour. Initially the GRP had insisted that a comprehensive peace deal be signed before the plebiscites were held. The compromise agreement dictates that plebiscites will be held in the 712 villages within 12 months of the signing of the MoA.

Another sticking point has been the GRP's insistence that it work within the "constitutional process". This has been such an obstacle that MILF demanded the government implement the MoA first and deal with the legal and political hurdles later. Amazingly, government negotiators appear to be agreeing to do just that. Hermogenes Esperon, a peace adviser to President Arroyo told reporters after the 16 July "breakthrough" in negotiations, "The final political solution will still be negotiated, and, if needed, we will amend the constitution to reflect what was agreed upon with the rebels." (Link 5)

"BALKANISING" THE PHILIPPINES?

In January 2008 the Philippines' Department of Justice issued a five-page memorandum to the government peace panel warning that a draft MoA on ancestral domain would result in a separate government for the separatists. Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez warned that not only do some provisions in the draft agreement violate the 1987 Constitution, they threaten to dismember the nation. (Link 2)

The MoA recognises the Bangsamoro people as the natives of Mindanao "distinct from the rest of the national communities". Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez warned that this provision "suggests that the Bangsamoro people are not Filipinos."

The MoA also grants the Bangsamoro people their own "distinct territory"

(Bangsamoro Territory) and "government" (the Bangsamoro Juridical Entity) along with international recognition. The Bangsamoro Territory will "not form part of the public domain" -- that is, it is "not within the jurisdiction of the Philippine government". As Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez pointed out in January, this is "tantamount to the surrender of a part of the territory and sovereignty of the Republic of the Philippines".

Justice Secretary Gonzalez, highlighting the necessity of "constitutional process", also warned that this entity cannot be given juridical personality in the absence of an enabling law passed by Congress. However, according to a 30 July 2008 article entitled "Transition gov't seen for Muslims" in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, MILF political affairs chief Ghadzali Jaafar says that the Comprehensive Compact Agreement (CCA) will contain details of how the BJE would be governed, i.e. "who will run it". According to Jaafar, once the CCA is signed "a transition government will immediately take effect". (Link 6)

TRIGGERS FOR CONFLICT

The Department of Justice is not the only place where anxiety is simmering.

There is also considerable anxiety in Christian communities in the Southern Philippines. They fear that the MoA may actually trigger unrest and even the displacement, dispossession and persecution of Christians.

North Cotabato vice governor Emmanuel Pinol told the South China Morning Post (21 July, link 3) that some Muslims in his province who had simply abandoned their lands or sold them during the Mindanao conflict in the 1970s were now returning and demanding their land back. He anticipates bloodshed and chaos will follow the signing of the MoA.

Furthermore, analysts such Fr. Eliseo Mercado, a former Chairman of the government's peace panel that negotiates with MILF, and Camilo Montesa, a lawyer and policy adviser of the Cotabato-based think-tank the Institute for Autonomy and Governance (IAG), have warned that the MoA threatens to open the door to a MILF declaration of independence.

According to ABS-CBN news, Fr Mercado said that if the Arroyo government fails to implement the ancestral domain accord [i.e. by failing to secure a congressional mandate to amend the constitution] then MILF can claim the moral high ground and declare independence while accusing the government of negotiating in bad faith. "This is the first time that I've seen a document as such", said Fr Mercado. "You have all the elements of a state. That entitles the Bangsamoro to a self-declaration [of independence]. Because it's all there: you've been recognised, you have territory, you have self-determination, your ancestral domain is your birthright, it's not part of the public domain." (Link 7)

There is also the likelihood that the MoA will lead to division along ethnic and religious lines in mixed areas.

In January, Mayor Celso Lobregat of Zamboanga City reiterated to a peace advocacy forum his position that Zamboanga City (which is around 75 percent Christian, mostly Catholic) be excluded from the Bangsamoro Juridical Entity (BJE) or any proposed Bangsamoro homeland. According to one report, "His stand was directly opposed to the popular clamour of the Bangsamoro residents of Zamboanga City which the Bangsamoro participants during the peace advocacy forum have openly advocated. They presented to the MILF Peace Panel members a position paper/petition for the inclusion of the Bangsamoro dominated Barangays before the end of the forum."

Hadji Abdulla U Camlian spoke to the forum of the historical role played by the Bangsamoro people of Zamboanga City in the history of the Mindanao region and the role they have to play in the current peace talks. According to the report: "He recalled the historical fact that Zamboanga is home to the Sama-Bangingi Bangsamoros and other Islamised Moros since time immemorial. The arrival of migrant-settlers from the Visayas and Luzon has altered the demography of the City. He therefore urged his fellow Sama to unite in order to restore the Bangsamoro hegemony in the City." (Link 8)

Furthermore, a prospective plebiscite on status can of itself be incentive for violent intimidation and even ethnic cleansing.

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It remains to be seen whether a land-for-peace deal can bring peace and prosperity to the Southern Philippines. President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo seems to believe it will. But why should creating a de facto Muslim state -- the Bangsamoro Juridical Entity (BJE) -- bring peace and prosperity to the Southern Philippines when after 18 years the establishment of the ARMM has brought neither?

Will the Bangsamoro Juridical Entity eventually employ Sharia Law? Or maybe a Malaysia-style system where Islamic courts decide all matters pertaining to Islam? This would be a profoundly regressive move, one the BJE's excited prospective Muslim citizens may profoundly regret, especially as radicalisation and its consequential Talibanisation spread unhindered, challenging rights long taken for granted -- rights guaranteed in the Philippine Constitution.

Recently on Basilan Island, where 96,000 Catholics form 30 percent of the population, Christians were issued with threatening letters from "mujahidins".

They contained the classic Islamic ultimatum to convert to Islam, submit and pay Islamic jizya (protection money) or face violence. (Further details: see link 9)

Concerning this, the Catholic Explorer reports that in Manila on 21 July, Hamid Barra, the Muslim convener of the Bishops-Ulama Conference and an expert on Islamic law, explained that non-Muslims who are protected by an Islamic government are required to pay jizya, which, he says, the state uses to support the poor and the needy. (Actually jizya is little more than protection money to secure protection from Islamic jihad, and to compensate for the fact that non-Muslims cannot serve in a Muslim Army.) Barra added that in a non-Islamic country like the Philippines, "there is no such payment required of non-Muslims". (Link 10)

By his own testimony, Hamid Barra would have to agree that extracting jizya from Christians in a de facto Muslim state such as the Bangsamoro Juridical Entity would be quite legitimate.

It is difficult to know whether the MoA will lead to the Balkanisation of the Philippines (a tearing apart along ethnic-religious lines), or to the headache of yet another Muslim FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Area, as in the "tribal bad lands" of north western Pakistan's FATA).

Elizabeth Kendal

Links

1) North Cotabato execs ask SC to stop GRP-MILF peace signing By Leila Salaverria, Philippine Daily Inquirer, 30 July 2008 http://newsinfo.inquirer.net/inquirerheadlines/regions/view/20080730-151503/North-Cotabato-execs-ask-SC-to-stop-GRP-MILF-peace-signing

2) Ancestral Domain Claims violate 1987 Constitution -- DOJ By Jomar Canlas, 18 January 2008 http://www.manilatimes.net/national/2008/jan/18/yehey/top_stories/20080118top4.html

See also: What is the GRP-MILF agreement on ancestral domain?

http://www.abs-cbnnews.com/storypage.aspx?StoryID=126194

3) Christians fear Muslim land grab after deal with Manila, leaders says.

Raissa Robles in Manila, 21 July 2008

South China Morning Post (subscription)

4) AFP sees peace, clergy get threats

By Kristine L. Alave, Alcuin Papa

Philippine Daily Inquirer 20 July 2008

http://newsinfo.inquirer.net/inquirerheadlines/nation/view_article.php?article_id=149521

5) Philippines Muslim area to expand. 17 July 2008 http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/7512401.stm

6) Transition gov't seen for Muslims

By Charlie Senase, Edwin Fernandez, Nash Maulana, Jeoffrey Maitem Mindanao Bureau, 30 July 2008 http://newsinfo.inquirer.net/inquirerheadlines/regions/view/20080730-151502/Transition-govt-seen-for-Muslims

7) Ancestral domain accord opens door to MILF declaration of independence: analysts

By Isagani de Castro Jr. 24 July 2008

http://www.abs-cbnnews.com/storypage.aspx?StoryId=126218

8) Peace Advocacy Forum held in Zamboanga City. 9 January 2008 http://moroland.net/2008/01/09/peace-advocacy-forum-held-in-zamboanga-city%20/

9) Southern Philippines: Terror on Basilan Island Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin | No. 488 | Wed 23 July 2008

http://www.worldevangelicals.org/news/view.htm?id=1971

ALSO

Basilan Catholics get threats to convert. 19 July 2008 http://www.gmanews.tv/story/107980/Basilan-Catholics-get-threats-to-convert

10) Philippine bishop reports receiving threat to convert to Islam By Catholic News Service. 22 July 2008 http://www.catholicexplorer.com/explore4325/nationworld/philippine-bishop-reports-receiving-threat-to-conv.shtml