Bloodshed in Sabah and the Peace Process


The latest reports show that Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak ordered that “necessary action” be taken against the Sulu intruders in Sabah. In the firefight that ensued, 10 to 12 “royal army” members and two Malaysian security personnel were killed. The standoff appears not over as the spokesman of the Sultanate of Sulu vowed that their supporters in Sabah will continue to fight.

Since the “invasion” of Sabah by the “royal army” more than two weeks ago, the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) have been trying to distance the peace negotiations from the claim of the Sultanate over Sabah. Chief government negotiator Miriam Ferrer said that the standoff in Sabah will not affect the peace process since the unsettled claims over Sabah is a foreign policy matter that is outside the purview of the talks.

The MILF was more blunt in describing the move of the heirs of the Sultanate of Sulu as sour-graping, putting their personal interests above that of the Bangsamoro people.

In response to the claim of the heirs that claim over Sabah was not considered in the peace talks, the government and the MILF said that the heirs of the Sultanate were consulted on the developments in the talks. In fact, the Sultan of Sulu was even present during the public signing of the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro in Malacañang.

It is understandable that the parties are zealously defending the talks because at this stage, the parties are about to sign the comprehensive peace agreement, the mechanisms for implementing the pact are in place, and expectations are at a fever pitch that Mindanao peace is finally to be achieved before President Aquino’s term in 2016. The PNoy peace train is on the run and no one will be allowed to derail it.

Yet this peace train has vulnerabilities and these are exposed more by this unfortunate incident in Sabah.

Government’s claim that the peace process is inclusive sounds hollow when indispensable parties to achieving durable peace like the Sultanate of Sulu and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) feel left out in the process.

How can the claim of the heirs of the Sultanate of Sulu be outside the peace process when the sultanate is the historical basis for the Bangsamoro claim for self-determination which is at the heart of the negotiations?

Why must the sultanate’s claim be off the negotiating table when it holds promise for more resources to the Bangsamoro at the very least from the rentals paid by the Malaysians to the heirs of the Sultanate? Why would the Sultanate and the Misuari-led MNLF be treated like “spoilers” when they are a great source of pride and identity to the Tausugs whose fragile support to the peace talks with the Maguindanoan-dominated MILF could be further eroded by the bloodshed in Malaysia?

Malaysia’s role

True or not, the dominant perception is that by having Malaysia as facilitator of the talks, the parties have from the very start foreclosed any discussions of the Sabah issue in the negotiations. The peace process is handicapped by Malaysia being perceived as not being an honest broker in the talks because of its own interest in Sabah.

This perception is becoming more real when Malaysia resorted to violence to end the Sabah stand-off, sending off the message that its territorial interest over Sabah is primordial over its relations with the Philippines and its peace-making role in Mindanao.

While the Philippine government exerted all effort to leash the heirs of the Sultanate to maintain its good relations with Malaysia and protect the peace process, Malaysia reciprocated by resorting to swift violence over patient diplomacy which it demonstrated as a Mindanao peacemaker.

For close observers of the peace process, the images of the contrasting roles of Malaysia on Mindanao is ironic: The Malaysian Prime Minister as the “godfather” to the government-MILF peace talks proudly beaming during the signing of the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro and the same Malaysian leader giving orders to the Malaysian armed forces chief who was once the head of the International Monitoring Team (IMT) tasked to oversee peace in Mindanao to take all necessary action to end the impasse.

What’s at stake

The Sabah bloodshed will generate anti-Malaysia sentiments in the country and in the Bangsamoro which will hurt even more the credibility of the peace process.

In the aftermath of the Sabah standoff, the biggest mistake that government and the MILF can do in the peace process is to continue to put the Sabah issue under the rug and to discredit those who are critical of the process as “sour-graping,” “matigas ang ulo” (hard-headed) and “spoilers.”

There is an opening to harness broad support and coalitions to the agreed negotiated peace formula in the Transition Commission where Malaysia is out of the picture.

The MILF dominates the Transition Commission and with their negotiators and consultants in the majority, it is practically given the blanket authority to draft the Bangsamoro Basic Law for consideration of Congress. The receptiveness, sensitivity, and openness of the MILF to the concerns and feelings of stakeholders like the Tausugs, the Sultanate of Sulu, and the MNLF in the crafting of the Basic Law will spell the success or failure of the peace process.

If the MILF wills it, the Transition Commission can potentially be the arena for genuine and meaningful intra-Moro dialogue and the building of alliances. –

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Sputtering Pnoy Peace Train

The Pnoy peace train had a rousing start-up in the signing of the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro (FAB) on October 15, 2012.

The energy that the signing generated was electrifying. Expressions of support to the FAB snowballed even if the details as annexes to the pact are yet to be completed.

The signing signalled the rousing departure of the Pnoy peace train. The FAB is the fuel and the north star of this express peace train that should reach its final destination before Pnoy’s term ends in 2016.

The peace train is sputtering and Pnoy as chief engineer is reportedly smelling sabotage.

But the sputtering is not just caused by forces external to the train. The goodwill and momentum generated by the signing of the FAB are depleting fast. From all indications, the annexes initially expected to be agreed upon by the GPH and the MILF way back in December last year appears far from being signed.

With the slowing of the train along the political track, the GPH in particular is trying to keep the momentum going by fast tracking the implementation of the development aspects of the FAB.

The Sajahatra Bangsamoro was launched by no less than President Aquino to jumpstart the development of MILF communities. An inter-agency task force on Bangsamoro development was formed to oversee the implementation of these development projects.

The MILF was uncomfortable with these government-initiated programs and insisted that the programs are not being unilaterally implemented by government but is in fact a part of the agreement of the parties.

The inter-agency task force on Bangsamoro development can be disconcerting for the MILF because while the administrative order creating it provides that the task force will coordinate with the Transition Commission, it is not clear how this body relates to the Bangsamoro Development Agency or how it is linked with the mechanisms in the Bangsamoro Agreement and its annexes.

It is also tasked to develop and implement the communications strategy on the Sajahatra Bangsamoro program which unfortunately tends to suggest that this development scheme is under government’s sole control. Worse, this provision makes it look that the program is a government propaganda tool.

By implementing development programs without resolving the fundamental political issues in the negotiations, the government risks these programs being branded as counter-insurgency measures out either to soften the position of the MILF in the negotiations or co-opt MILF communities. If government does not thread carefully, these initiatives could create enmity not trust between the MILF and the government.

The MNLF offensives against the Abu Sayyaf and the on-going stand-off in Sabah between the followers of the Sultan of Sulu out to “reclaim” their homeland and the Malaysian security forces are potential “derailers” to the Pnoy peace train. These developments expose the limits of the Framework Agreement and raises questions on the “comprehensiveness” of the formula for Mindanao peace in the FAB and its subsequent annexes.

The Pnoy peace train left the station but left out some key actors including the MNLF and the Sultanate of Sulu.
The MNLF and Nur Misuari have been publicly portrayed as a spent force so Misuari reacted by unleashing his forces against the Abu Sayyaf and made “martyrs” of his slain men. The MNLF offensives took place while the government distributed health cards and scholarships to MILF combatants and communities.

While the historical claim of the Bangsamoro over Mindanao is anchored on the existence of the Sultanate of Sulu, the claim of the heir of the Sultanate against Malaysia were not touched upon in the negotiations which happened to be facilitated by the Malaysian government. This exposes the inherent limitations on the peace process where issues and options are foreclosed to maintain the good graces of the facilitator.

At this time, the sputtering Pnoy peace train needs to be saved not only because it is the only one on track but more importantly we may probably not have another Chief Executive with the same passion, commitment and resoluteness of President Aquino to resolve the Mindanao conflict.

The key is to sign a comprehensive agreement that lives up to its name—an all-inclusive roadmap that provides a space for all stakeholders to participate in the shaping and governance of the future Bangsamoro region.

The Basic Law that will be crafted must not only be perceived but must in fact be inclusive in substance and process. Unlike the negotiations in Kuala Lumpur where the discourse is controlled by the Malaysian facilitator, the crafting of the Basic Law in the public arena provides the space for genuine intra-Moro dialogue.

In this space, the MILF which will have the majority in the Transition Commission must exercise the highest degree of openness, statesmanship and professionalism in listening and building consensus with all stakeholders in crafting the Basic Law that is consistent with the Comprehensive Peace Agreement.

The next station for the sputtering peace train is the crafting of the Basic Law. It is hoped that the government and the MILF play their cards right in this “station” so that an invigorated Pnoy peace train can continue its journey with more not less key stakeholders on board.

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Mindanao Peace as a Campaign Issue


Senator Franklin Drilon has made Mindanao peace as an issue in the senatorial campaign by declaring that a vote for President Aquino’s candidates in the May elections is a vote for permanent peace in Mindanao.  He said that it is important that Aquino’s handpicked candidates be voted in the Senate because they will push for the President’s policies on peace in the ARMM.  The report noted that in making this claim, Senator Drilon is transforming the 2013 mid-term elections into a proxy vote for the ratification of the Bangsamoro Framework Agreement in the next Congress.

Sen. Drilon’s claim earned a fast rebuttal from the UNA camp.  UNA candidate Sen. Gregorio Honasan asserts that while he is in favor of the Bangsamoro Framework Agreement, it is a work in progress and it is not the end all and be all of the elections.  Another UNA senatorial candidate Rep. JV Ejercito said that Drilon was misguided in simplifying the election into just one issue.  He says: “We all want peace but can we have peace without solving poverty, which is the root cause of this long-running rebellion? Peace cannot be achieved by a mere agreement, there will be no peace if poverty persists.  They want development in Mindanao but have they addressed the power crisis in that region? How can there be progress if electricity is expensive and supply is unreliable.”

Ejercito also cautioned Drilon against raising expectations over the Bangsamoro deal as the solution to Mindanao’s peace problem. He calls for a more realistic and sober assessment of the peace pact because there is a possibility it will not deliver the government’s lofty promises or it will not meet the MILF’s expectations and the country will be worse off than it is now. Honasan adds that peace should not be limiting or exclusive, it should involve everybody in the discussions.

I’ve been advocating that Mindanao peace be promoted as part of the national agenda in order to insure national support to the implementation of any negotiated political settlement to the Bangsamoro question.  By raising Mindanao peace as an issue in the national campaign, the avenue for getting at least national awareness if not popular support to this cause has been opened.  This development reinforces our belief that President Aquino is indeed committed to the peace roadmap in the Framework Agreement and will stake his political capital to see through its completion before his term ends in 2016. I am even more convinced now that more than combating corruption, President Aquino intends to define his presidency as one that has brought peace to Mindanao

Sen. Drilon’s move could not just be his own.  Making Mindanao peace a campaign pitch may be a calculated and well-thought move of the Aquino administration.  Drawing the battle lines on the issue of passing the Basic Law sends a strong signal to potential “spoilers” that President Aquino will frame the issue of Mindanao peace in a simplistic, black or white way with the mantra “either you are with me or against me”. 

But there is a flipside to this gambit.  While strong leadership for peace as President Aquino is exhibiting is an essential ingredient in peacemaking, sustainable peace will not be attained unless this strong leadership is backed by strong popular not just fleeting elite support.  In the Philippines, our political elites have a way of supporting causes not because they truly believe in them but because it is politically expedient and beneficial.  Under the administration of President Gloria Arroyo, Sen. Drilon staunchly opposed the MOA-AD between the government and the MILF that a “fatwa” was even declared against him.  While he and other oppositors claimed that they were questioning the deal on procedural and constitutional grounds, their mistrust of the unpopular Pres. Arroyo was really the driver for their opposition.  For how can we explain the unconditional support to the Bangsamoro Framework which is still bereft of details by the same persons who scuttled the MOA-AD when the same arguments on constitutional grounds against the MOA AD can be poised against the Bangsamoro Framework?

The Bangsamoro Framework is a crucial piece in the puzzle to attain Mindanao peace but it can only lead to sustainable peace if grassroots and bipartisan support to the details of the roadmap is secured.  At this early stage, expressions of support to the Framework ring hollow since without the annexes, there is no way anyone can appreciate the implication of the deal in full to the political and economic interests of the stakeholders.  Drawing the battle lines now may win some Mindanao votes for the administration senatorial candidates but this in the long term could hold the peace process hostage to the country’s dysfunctional political processes.

Peacemaking is a long and tedious process of reconfiguring and healing relationships.  It is a grave mistake to assume that partisanship and brinkmanship alone can bring sustainable Mindanao peace.  I hope that President Aquino’s legacy for Mindanao could be remembered as one that inspired people to contribute and sacrifice for the cause of peace not because of their politics but owing to their genuine appreciation of the history and plight of the Bangsamoro people. 





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2012 in review

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The new Boeing 787 Dreamliner can carry about 250 passengers. This blog was viewed about 1,600 times in 2012. If it were a Dreamliner, it would take about 6 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

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Government-MILF Peace Talks: Implementation Challenges and Opportunities

Originally posted on The long road to peace:

1. As the parties plan and hope that things will happen as they plan it, we should consider all other scenarios and prepare for them as well. Resilience is key as the goals are the same: peace and development in Mindanao.

2. The bulk of the work for peace in Mindanao is in the implementation phase. As the negotiations in Kuala Lumpur come to a close, the parties need to prepare for the implementation phase. One of the lessons from the GRP-MNLF peace process is that a peace agreement would fail if there is no one  in the Philippine Government who is charged with making sure that the peace agreements will be implemented. Thus, the Philippine Government needs to designate a Cabinet level “orchestrator” to oversee the implementation of the agreements as this is already beyond negotiations and would involve orchestrating actions of political, bureaucratic, military, legislative, judicial and social…

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MILF or Bangsamoro-led Transition Authority?


The negotiations on the annexes to the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro are reportedly on “technical impasse” on among others the issue of leadership over the Bangsamoro Transition Authority (BTA).  The Bangsamoro Framework provides for the following:

“8. Upon promulgation and ratification of the Basic Law, which provides for the creation of the Bangsamoro Transition Authority (BTA), the ARMM is deemed abolished.

9. All devolved authorities shall be vested in the Bangsamoro Transition Authority during the interim period. The ministerial form and Cabinet system of government shall commence once the Bangsamoro Transition Authority is in place. The Bangsamoro Transition Authority may reorganize the bureaucracy into institutions of governance appropriate thereto.

10. The Bangsamoro Transition Authority shall ensure that the continued functioning of government in the area of autonomy is exercised pursuant to its mandate under the Basic Law. The Bangsamoro Transition Authority will be immediately replaced in 2016 upon the election and assumption of the members of the Bangsamoro legislative assembly and the formation of the Bangsamoro government.”

Media reports say that the government panel’s position is for a Bangsamoro-led BTA while the MILF insists that an MILF-led BTA is non-negotiable. 

The government is apparently envisioning a BTA that is inclusive of political groups in the Bangsamoro—MILF, MNLF, local political and local leaders, indigenous groups etc. On the other hand, the MILF insists that “it has long been the partner of the government in peace-making in the 16 long years of negotiations and after it signed the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro (FAB); but all of a sudden, the government would replace it with strangers to the talks” (Luwaran quoting MILF negotiator Alonto).

The position of the MILF is logical.  When the government entered into a Framework agreement with the MILF, the government  has acknowledged two propositions: First, that the formula in the Framework agreement can bring about sustainable peace and second, that the MILF is government’s partner in implementing the roadmap. Since the BTA is an instrumentality in the transition process, the MILF should have a leading role there as government’s partner in implementing the roadmap.  The leadership of the Bangsamoro is a different issue left to be resolved in the elections for leaders of the Bangsamoro government in 2016. 

On the other hand, since the signing of the agreement, the government has been on the defensive over the issue of the legitimacy and representation by the MILF of the entire Bangsamoro that it has been hard-pressed “framing” the Framework as an inclusive and democratic way to resolve the Mindanao conflict.  The government knows that it cannot deliver its commitments under the framework agreement without getting the support of Congress, the Supreme Court , the MNLF and local political and traditional leaders in Mindanao.  Whether we like it or not, support among the political elite to the roadmap will be much driven by the degree in which their political and economic interests are guaranteed or endangered in the new Bangsamoro government.  

An MILF-led transition authority is a sensitive issue to the Moro political elite because it will give the MILF the distinct advantage and resources of an incumbent in the 2016 electoral contest.  While the Bangsamoro Framework may provide for Bangsamoro-led or MILF-led BTA, it is the Basic Law approved by Congress that will finally determine the configuration of the BTA.  The challenge is to avoid getting to the cliff where Congress crafts the Basic Law largely along narrow partisan political interests and passes a law that is substantially inconsistent with the Framework Agreement or draft law submitted by the Transition Commission. A provision in the Framework of an MILF-led BTA will most likely bring the peace process to this cliff.

The government and the MILF must find a way out of its impasse where the MILF’s role as the primary partner of government during the transition is not diminished while giving the Aquino government enough elbow room to build support around the roadmap.  One way is to focus on the qualities of those to be appointed to the BTA than indicating who and what groups to lead the BTA. One qualification for BTA leaders is commitment to the implementation of the comprehensive peace agreement.  The MILF will definitely have a leading role in the BTA since it is the champion of the peace agreement.  In this formula, the MILF must trust that President Aquino will uphold his commitment to the MILF as a peace partner.  

Another option which is complementary to the first is to make the BTA a non-partisan and professional outfit considering that its main task is to prepare the ground for the establishment of the new Bangsamoro ministerial government.  The BTA is an implementing not a policy-making or political body and it can do a better job for the short period of time it exists if it is insulated from political interests.  During the transition, let the politicians build political parties while the professionals establish effective and accountable structures and processes.

It is disheartening to hear that there is “impasse” and “non-negotiable” positions after the government and the MILF unveiled in great fashion to the entire world the signing of the Bangsamoro Agreement.  The government and the MILF owe it to the ordinary Moro people and the country whose hopes and expectations they lifted during the signing of the Framework on October 15 to prove that they can rise above narrow parochial interests.  The parties have a great opening to introduce a new politics that give life not death and destruction in the southern Philippines. It will be a great tragedy if this opening is wasted over the issue of control and leadership.  The MILF’s greatness will not lie on its having control of the BTA or other instrumentalities or how much concession it got from the government but on the visionary ideology and politics that it advocated and brought into fruition.  The Moro people will remember this MILF legacy in the 2016 elections and by then, leadership by the MILF of the Bangsamoro will not be imposed, negotiated or self-ascribed but will flow from the sovereign will of the Moro people.


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