History is repeating itself in the current uproar generated by the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA–AD). It is the history of never learning lessons from a previous peace process. The MOA–AD was supposed to have been signed by both Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) panels on the first week of August — a significant breakthrough in the more than decade–old peace process between the two parties.
In the protracted peace and conflict processes in Mindanao, the MOA–AD stands as a progressive document that has elevated the Bangsamoro aspirations for self–determination via “associative” governance of their ancestral domain, something that has been glaringly absent in the previous peace process with the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). For the first time, a Philippine government administration seemed to be opening the door toward the recognition of the reality of a significant other identity in the Filipino nation — the Bangsamoro. For them, it was more than a pyrrhic victory — it was a gesture, albeit a delayed one, of finally coming to terms with a significant other in the ethnically diverse Philippine society.
But it was a milestone that was too good to be true — and indeed, its promulgation was marked largely by vociferous protests telling all and sundry that the Philippines, its state mechanisms and processes are still under the control of a vast majority that likes to imagine the country as one solid and integrated “Filipino” nation. Such a nation is built on a core of basically Christian Filipino values that largely negates identities that contravene or do not belong to these core values. When the GRP announced a MOA granting “extraordinary” rights to a group that does not hold the same core values, the majority group reacted negatively, even violently.
In 1996, the GRP signed the first ever peace accord with the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), hoping to end decades of sporadic fighting in many parts of Central and Western Mindanao, including the Sulu archipelago. The signing was considered a major benchmark in the process that started with the discredited Marcos regime. In December, 1976, President Marcos, through his emissaries signed the Tripoli Agreement with the MNLF, granting the latter some semblance of autonomy. More than two decades later, the new Philippine president at that time, Fidel V. Ramos, signed the Final Peace Agreement (FPA) with the MNLF.
The signing of the FPA also led to the establishment of the Southern Philippines Council for Peace and Development (SPCPD) in Mindanao that was tasked, among others, to oversee the implementation of development projects for the MNLF members who were to be “mainstreamed” in the Philippine democratic bureaucracy. When SPCPD’s creation was announced, it was met with loud protests, rallies and mobilizations that denounced government’s failure of informing the larger public — the majority Christian Filipino population — about the rationale of the FPA, and of the peace process as a whole.
In any peace process, the state that engages a rebel group in negotiations and dialogues is expected to set in motion a parallel process of information dissemination and public education about why such a process has to take place. In a country that has been divided along religious fault lines, such a process is imperative for both protagonists: for the state to secure the “consent” from its majority constituents on a deal with a group that is perceived by the majority as the cause of all the “trouble.” The leadership of the rebel group also needs to explain the raison d’être of their armed struggle to the majority, not necessarily to win them over, but to open lines of dialogue with them and eventually prevent demonization of the group and its cause.
But no such information dissemination processes took place — in both the previous and the current peace processes in Mindanao. The first peace process now goes down history as a dismal failure. A major evaluation of the 1996 Final Peace Agreement (FPA) implementation has concluded that there were many things the FPA lost — in the transition from war to peace, in the haste to sign an agreement, many opportunities for the MNLF to become the vanguard for pushing the right of self–determination among the Bangsamoro were squandered. But more importantly, its failure was attributed to the lack of information dissemination among the various Philippine constituents — both its majority and minority populations.
As many pundits have written, there was nothing “final” in the FPA: instead, it was just a brief detour in the rocky road to peace in Mindanao.
The massive outburst of protests against the MOA–AD is a consequence of the lack of information dissemination and consultative processes on the very rationale why it needs to be signed. This also happened in the signing of the FPA and in the creation of government bodies to implement some provisions in it. Being steeped in anti–Muslim literature, folklore and prejudices, the larger community of majority Christian Filipinos felt that the Philippine government has done them a disservice in granting some favors to the MNLF, whom many perceive as having sowed violence in Mindanao.
Despite its flaws and omissions (especially on more inclusive processes in social development for the BJE) the MOA–AD stands as a powerful instrument that can move the peace process forward. A series of dispassionate, rational and level–headed community–level discourses on it can pave the way toward forging peace in a region that has seen so much bloodshed throughout more than three decades of sporadic fighting. Sadly, discussions on it have been emotionally charged, triggering hard–line positions on both sides. Some spoilers have exacerbated the situation by using it to foment disinformation, especially in resuscitating deep wounds wrought during the height of the armed conflict in the 1970s.
One of the latest reports from the Lanao areas bespeaks of the articulation of deep–seated animosities among Christians against their Muslim neighbors. Some Christian communities have allegedly barricaded the highways toward the mountainous areas where the Muslim Maranaws are currently staying to evade conflict. The reason: to prevent aid agencies to deliver food assistance for them. There is also a report that after the siege in Kolambugan, Lanao del Norte, no less than a Cabinet secretary of President Arroyo went to the town to distribute shotguns to civilians. Allegedly, civilian local government officials in Kolambugan requested the cabinet secretary because the military has been inefficient in coming to their rescue during times when they are attacked by MILF rebels. Using the inefficiency of the military as a pretext for arming civilians is a flimsy excuse to absolve government of its responsibility in ensuring the security and safety of its constituents. More importantly, this act is downright condemnable – the Philippine government has once again affirmed its monopoly of violence and worse, that whatever violence it engenders is legitimate. This situation eerily repeats the intense state of insecurity of people during the dark ages of Martial Law under President Marcos.
Clearly, the present crisis wrought by the botched MOA–AD needs to be addressed so we do not add to the growing number of casualties reported everyday. But for the long term, the MOA–AD needs to be resuscitated because it holds the key to exploring possibilities of rectifying age–old injustices against the Bangsamoro and other indigenous populations in the Philippine nation–state. These injustices have been wrought from colonization to the unilateral annexation of the ancestral domain areas of the Bangsamoro and indigenous peoples by the Philippine central government. Coming to terms with these injustices is crucial to start forging a livable peace for all the diverse populations that consider Mindanao their home.
The long trek toward peace in the strife–torn areas in Mindanao starts with careful, although painful small steps that are guided by tolerance and mutual understanding. More importantly, there is a need for openness to new possibilities rather than being fixed within certain boxes and rigid legal instrumentalities, like the Philippine Constitution.