Former US ambassadors Say Persistent Conflict in Mindanao Can Only Be Resolved by Political Means

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews) – “While security measures must be a part of an overall settlement, the persistent conflict in Mindanao can only be resolved by political means,” seven former US ambassadors to the Philippines, a former Assistant Secretary of State, a former Deputy Chief of Mission and a senior research associate of the United States Institute of Peace, said in their opinion piece titled “Fixing Mindanao” in the September 30 issue of the Asian Wall Street Journal. Stephen Bosworth, Thomas Hubbard, Richard Murphy, Nicholas Platt, Francis Ricciardone, Richard Solomon, Frank Wisner, Chester A. Crocker, G. Eugene Martin and Astrid Tuminez, also noted that “something very much like the recently suspended (Memorandum of) agreement (on Ancestral Domain) would have to be part of any future settlement” between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

“Authoritative expert negotiators on both sides believed they had crafted an agreement that all could accept. While the agreement was a compromise, its aim was to serve as a valuable starting point for more comprehensive negotiations,” they said.

Bosworth, Hubbard, Murphy, Platt, Ricciardone, Solomon and Wisner served as Ambassador to Manila, Crocker served as Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs and was head of the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) from 1992 to 2004. Martin was deputy chief of mission at the US Embassy in Manila and later, USIP Executive Director, while Tuminez was senior research associate of the USIP’s Philippine Facilitation Project. Crocker was an advisor to that project.

The MOA-AD, which the authors refer to as “the suspended agreement,” would have “gone far to resolving longstanding disputes over the ‘ancestral domain’ claimed by Mindanao’s competing ethno-linguistic and religious communities.”

“The agreement would give communities in Mindanao substantially more autonomy in conduct of local affairs and use of local resources while remaining part of the sovereign national entity. The Islamic minority would be better able to preserve its culture and identity in the face of the majority’s dominant culture. Manila would be able to reduce military expenditures and devote more resources to resolving poverty and social problems. Both parties would reap the rewards of increased stability in the region,” they wrote.

The MOA-AD, initialed on July 27 in Kuala Lumpur and scheduled for formal signing on August 5 was not signed following the issuance of a temporary restraining order (TRO) by the Philippines’ Supreme Court afternoon of August 4, preventing government peace panel chair Rodolfo Garcia, the signatory to the MOA, and Foreign Secretary Alberto Romulo, who was also going to affix his signature along with the Malaysian foreign secretary, from signing.

The Philippine government has since announced it would “not sign the MOA in its present form and in any other form,” dissolved the government peace panel on September 3 and announced a policy that it would only talk with armed groups on the basis of DDR (disarmament, demobilization and reintegration).

The MILF under Commander Bravo, meanwhile, went on a rampage on August 18 in Lanao del Norte. MILF forces under Commander Umbra Kato was earlier accused of occupying North Cotabato villages.

The Armed Forces of the Philippines launched what it said was “punitive action” only on the “renegade” commanders even as the MILF leadership maintained Bravo and Kato were under their control.

At least half a million residents have been displaced and civilians, including a father and five of his children, have been killed.

The authors say the MOA-AD “collapsed for failure to build the political consensus for a settlement.”

“Negotiators on all sides had preserved the confidentiality of the process and crafted language that found defensible common ground. To complete a strong draft agreement on which to develop a lawful, nonviolent political order for Mindanao, and thus a brighter future for all the Philippines, secrecy was indispensable during the negotiations. Yet that secrecy also made it hard, if not impossible, for leaders on both sides to lay the political groundwork for eventual acceptance of the deal. Unsubstantiated rumors and fears as much as genuine objection fueled the opposition once the details were announced,” they wrote.

But the authors noted that “leaders on all sides still have the opportunity and challenge of building public support.”

The Supreme Court, they said, “will identify any constitutional flaws in the suspended agreement” but added the Court has already “rendered an even greater service by pushing the leaders of the conflicting parties, however belatedly, to educate their publics on the terms of the draft agreement, on the conditions for renewal of an effective peace process, and most importantly, on the intolerable and broadly shared costs of failing to conclude and implement a broader reconciliation process.”

“Political leaders on all sides will have to help their adversaries strengthen their respective constituencies for peace, while addressing the fears of those who believe the compromise agreement would imperil fundamental interests,” the authors said.

The authors said the situation now is “a critical moment not only for the leaders of the government and the Moros, but also for religious, business, media and other civil society leaders from Manila to Mindanao.”

“Many of them, supported by external stakeholders led by Malaysia and backed by the United States and other international donors of economic development and security assistance, have sustained the parties to the conflict as they struggled up to the very edge of success. International and independent organizations likewise have lent their expertise to courageous peacemakers on all sides of this communitarian conflict, and still remain ready to help them realize peace in Mindanao. Ultimately, however, only the national and community leaders of the Philippines can guide their people through this moment of danger toward an agreement with historic opportunity,” they concluded. (MindaNews)

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