Arms for peace in Mindanao

OPINION
BY LILIA RAMOS SHAHANI
THE PHILIPPINE STAR
 

In a world seething with militant Islam, it’s not too hard to imagine that, unless meaningfully defused, the conflict in Mindanao, if permitted to reignite, could escalate into a far more intractable war. Which is why there is reason to celebrate, however cautiously, the recent decommissioning of MILF troops and weapons as part of its on-going peace agreement with the government. This is the first time in our history that a major rebel group has voluntarily given up its arms in the context of a peace agreement, and while the total so far represents a miniscule portion of their weapons, it still is a step in the right direction. These are times when the optimism of the will, to paraphrase Gramsci, must keep step with the pessimism of the intellect. The ultimate goal here must not only be peace, but peace with justice, especially for the long-suffering people of Mindanao.

With this in mind, let us take a closer look at last week’s Decommissioning Ceremony in Sultan Kudarat, Maguindanao. First, who were the players? Naturally, the government, represented by the president and the MILF, but also the Independent Decommissioning Body (IDB), charged with overseeing the process. Headed by Turkish Ambassador Haydar Berk, the IDB includes representatives from the militaries of Brunei and Norway, academics, and representatives of both the Filipino and Bangsamoro armed forces. This diversity of oversight is very deliberate, echoing previously successful decommissioning processes in Nepal, Northern Ireland, and Aceh.

For a small place like the Old Capitol of Simuay, the attendance was quite impressive: Defense Secretary Gazmin, Interior Secretary Roxas, Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process Deles, ARMM Governor Hataman, Maguindanao Governor Mangudadatu, MILF Central Committee Chair Ibrahim, Government Peace Panel Chair Coronel-Ferrer, PNP OIC Deputy Director General Espina, AFP Chief of Staff General Catapang and Archbishop Quevedo.

The numbers being decommissioned, however, were considerably less impressive: 75 weapons and 145 troops. What remains impressive is that 20—nearly a third—of the weapons were crew-served, that is to say, mortars and heavy machine guns: a type of weapon used mainly in fighting on a larger scale, unit against military unit. Among a group of people who have spent nearly two generations engaged in conflict, decommissioning such hard-to-procure weaponry is no small matter. 

But far more important are the 145 men. This is a trust-building ceremony—symbolic, but not just symbolic—in that those men are now canaries in the coal mine. How they actually fare in the wake of their departure from the Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces (BIAF)—the armed component of the MILF—will be of signal importance to all the troops who wish to follow them into a presumably fairer and more peaceful world. Just how fair and peaceful that world might be remains to be seen and is being watched with great interest. But this is exactly how trust building works.

The PNP and AFP know exactly what it means for the BIAF to hand over mortars—because their units have been on the receiving end of them, fired into their units from positions of relative safety, so even if the numbers are mostly ceremonial, the message is clear. Likewise, the BIAF has to trust the AFP and PNP not to attack them during—or after—the peace process. The decommissioning was ceremonial, but the trust building goes beyond ceremony.

This decommissioning actually marks the beginning of a much more extensive process under the Annex on Normalization of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB): the ultimate decommissioning of MILF forces and weapons will occur roughly in thirds, coinciding with and based on a joint security assessment during the implementation phases of whatever law is finally passed. Portions of the process will also be mediated in part by the IDB. It is actually a rigorously worked-out process: Annex on Normalization.

Still, for a week now, we’ve heard much from opponents and proponents: Muslim Mindanaoan leadership—inside and outside the MILF—are hopeful in their aspirations for peace; members of the Peace Process are optimistic and possibly more than a little relieved to see the process get this far. Never before has a peace deal in Mindanao involved decommissioning arms and troops. Truly a landmark moment.

Meanwhile, oppositionists—some preparing for a possible presidential run—scoff at the miniscule numbers involved, as though the rest of the plan didn’t exist. Some dismiss the entire effort as propaganda; others find the win/lose cry of war more stirring than the win/win cry of peace in a no-longer war-torn nation.

Senator Bongbong Marcos, Chair of the Committee on Local Government that is the lead committee in the proposed BBL deliberations, downplayed the decommissioning: “In terms of true material reduction in firepower of the MILF, it’s not really meaningful… In terms of confidence building, it’s a very small step.” Meanwhile, Senator Chiz Escudero urged the MILF to complete their decommissioning of firearms and combatants ahead of the 2016 elections, adding that the ceremonial decommissioning was not even one percent of the total firearms allegedly in the arsenal of the group. But—perhaps somewhat disingenuously--both conveniently ignored the rigorously planned (and internationally recognized) decommissioning scheduled after the ceremony.

Certainly, with the exception of Ferdinand Marcos and Erap Estrada, every Philippine president has worked for—and possibly dreamed of—peace in Mindanao. To be sure, lingering questions remain: the long-term consequences of the Mamasapano tragedy; the degree to which the MILF legitimately represents the Bangsamoro as a whole; and lingering constitutional and legal questions on the BBL. Not to mention concerns about reserved, shared, and exclusive powers, as well as taxation and revenue-sharing; and the need to consult all relevant stakeholders in the crafting of the law, including the Sultanate of Sulu, the MNLF, the Lumad or Indigenous Peoples, concerned government agencies and civil society organizations. Still, this is undeniably a fresh start. 

Given the long history of suffering in Mindanao, this is a beginning to be built upon. Every day that the law is not passed is yet another day when people have to suffer, when they have to fear yet more displacement, deprivation, dislocation and war. Which may explain the President’s recent entreaty to politicians ensconced in the relative safety and comfort of imperial Manila to do something concrete to stop what is ultimately a human rights scandal, asking: “Where is your conscience?”

In the passage of the BBL, I say: let there be as much open and diverse discussion of the actual content and potential ramifications of the law as necessary to achieve a fair and lasting peace. But to those whose main goal is to throw monkey-wrenches into the political process in the interest of buffing up their opposition images, I have to join the President in his question. 

FROM: The Philippine Star