A Chance for Peace

The jubilation was justified. When the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front signed the “Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro” last week, 16 years of sporadic negotiations finally reached a new bright peak. The war-weary people of southern Philippines and peace-loving people everywhere welcomed it.

“Bangsamoro” as used in the agreement refers to areas of Mindanao where there are large Muslim majorities. The term “Moro” was first used by the Spaniards to refer to the Muslims of Mindanao, after the Muslim Moors of Spain. It used to be a pejorative word but was eventually adopted by 13 Muslim ethno-linguistic groups in Mindanao as a proud way of identifying themselves — in the same way “Indio” was once derogatory but in the course of history became a badge of honor.

“Bangsa,” of course, means nation but that’s OK because there is a sense in which nations can exist within nations. For instance, Native Americans have their own nations — like the Cherokee nation — but they are still American nationals.

With the Framework Agreement, peace now has another chance in Muslim Mindanao. By virtue of it, both parties agree to establish Bangsamoro as an autonomous political unit with exclusive powers, while the national government maintains its reserved powers (national defense, foreign policy, monetary policy, citizenship etc).

There will be shared powers that, along with the exclusive powers, will be defined by a Basic Law to be passed by the Philippine Congress, after being drafted by a special committee in which all stakeholders are represented. The Basic Law will need confirmation by plebiscite.

So there’s a long way to go before Bangsamoro becomes a reality.

Other issues that are yet to be fully agreed upon by the two sides are the sharing of revenues derived from the use of natural resources, and “normalization,” meaning how the MILF militia will be disbanded. The wealth-sharing issue, say the negotiators of both sides, is just a matter of numbers. The MILF fighters will not be absorbed into the Philippine military but the projected Basic Law will create a Bangsamoro police force.

Here’s one complication: in 1996 the Philippine government signed a peace agreement with the Moro National Liberation Front, headed by Nur Misuari. The agreement, facilitated by Indonesia, created an Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao. People say this didn’t work because while Nur Misuari was a charismatic rebel, he wasn’t a conscientious administrator.

It was the MNLF that broke out in a separatist rebellion in 1972. The MILF split from the MNLF in 1977 and later the MNLF splintered into four factions. Although the MILF grew stronger than the MNLF, it is the latter that sits as observer in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.

Today the OIC is brokering reconciliation between the two Fronts. Although both the Philippine government and the MILF assure that the interests of the MNLF will be accommodated in the Basic Law, Nur Misuari warns of the Framework Agreement being a recipe for “a big, big war.” His tantrums are not scaring anybody.

Like most people, I am guardedly optimistic about the Framework Agreement. There are robust signs that in the forging of the Basic Law, the interests of all stakeholders — Muslims, the Christians, the non-Muslim minorities, the MNLF, the central government and others — will be considered in the spirit of give and take. There is a palpable intention to achieve a win-win situation for all.

The devil is in the details, of course. There will be years of tedious work to make sure the constitution is not violated, nobody’s rights are trampled on and no one is left behind. But that’s how peace comes about. It doesn’t drop like manna from heaven. Those who want it must sweat for it.

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