Reaching Out to Local Political Leaders

In its recent report on Mindanao, the International Crisis Group (ICG) concludes that local politicians particularly those in Basilan , Sulu and Tawi-Tawi could potentially derail the peace pact between the GPH and the MILF. The report says that “provincial governors of Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi, although Muslims, are wary of any agreement that would allow the MILF, dominated by ethnically distinct groups from Central Mindanao, to extend its sway and jeopardise the patronage system they enjoy with Manila.

The report further says that “the challenge for the government of President Benigno Aquino III is to find a way to offer more meaningful autonomy to the MILF and overcome differences between the MILF and MNLF without alienating powerful clan leaders from the Sulu archipelago with a capacity to make trouble”.

The report has a certain ring to it after the five governors from the ARMM were seen participating as observers during the recent talks in Kuala Lumpur.  The government reported that the governors are supporting the peace talks and are desirous of attaining meaningful autonomy under the constitution.  Sulu Governor Sakur Tan was quoted  that the governors call is for for a plebiscite and “democratize governance” in the autonomous region.

In a more detailed and nuanced reporting, Mindanews cited the assurance of the governors that they will not be obstructionists in the GPH-MILF talks as long as the process is legal and subjected to legislation.

It is interesting to note the observation of the governors that compared before, they found that their meeting with the MILF negotiators in Kuala Lumpur were more open and cordial.  They also observed that the MILF panel has downplayed the prominent role of the MILF as being in the “driver’s seat” in the transitional mechanism to implement a pact with the government.

It was reported that governors  were vocal against the current autonomous set up.  They feel that the ARMM  is clipping the powers of the local government units in the appointment and transfer of provincial directors (of national line agencies).  The provinces in the ARMM, they claim, are less autonomous than “regular” provinces.

The political interests that the governors want secured are crystal clear.  First, they do not want to be sidelined in the crafting and implementation of a pact with the MILF. Second, they insist that the implementation of the pact provides for democratic processes like a plebiscite or elections which are arenas over which they have considerable control. Third, they will resist losing political control by default of their bailiwicks via a peace pact and without the benefit of elections.

The local political leaders want a short MILF-led transition period and the immediate  conduct of elections because they are confident that they will win hands-down in any electoral contests.  They will also insist that new powers and wealth accorded to the new political entity by any pact will have to be devolved to the LGUs which must get a substantial share in the IRA not only from the national government but also regional taxes and income from exploitation of natural resources in the region.

Historically, the daunting task of insuring that the political kingpins in the ARMM are supportive of the peace process rested on the government. The MILF’s position has always been that since these political leaders are part of  government, they are bound by the peace pact it will enter with government which has the primary responsibility to insure that these leaders comply with the terms agreed upon.  If the agreement calls for the MILF taking the lead during the transition towards the establishment of the new autonomous political entity, the government must exert its power and influence over traditional and political leaders in the region to support this.

But as long as the MILF  leaves the cajoling of local political leaders entirely to government, it loses the opportunity to boost its political stock by exercising moral and unifying leadership that the Bangsamoro people cry for at this critical juncture.

There is no question that there is a general clamor and support for genuine and effective self-governance among the Moro people in and out of government.  There is also no question that for some groups, the call is motivated less by addressing the root causes of the conflict but by selfish political interests.  By leaving entirely to government the obligation to put local leaders in line with the peace process, the patron-client relationship these leaders have with Manila is further entrenched.  For Moro self-governance to work at all, the political life of its leaders should rise and fall from the legitimacy and free consent granted by their constituents and not by Manila’s bidding.

Thus, the MILF must constructively engage these local political leaders now while it is still widely regarded as the best chance to bring about genuine self-governance for the Moro people. After all, these local political leaders will be major players in any new autonomous political entity.  A demonstration of openness on the part of the MILF to engage local political leaders at this early stage will go a long way in building confidence on the inclusive stewardship by the MILF of the evolving political reconfiguration.

The new political entity must be framed as a “project” insulated as much as possible from opposing political interests. The question is not what kind of political entity will serve the interests of the MILF, the MNLF, political and traditional leaders and other interest groups. The right question is: What is the form and shape of this new political entity that will best serve the interest of the Bangsamoro people?  In sum, the entity is not customized for particular groups but is crafted as the best and effective mechanism that will bring peace and prosperity to Moro communities.

In the end the leadership of the new political entity will be settled in an elections that will hopefully by then free and credible.  And leadership in a free and democratic elections is not won by patronage and intimidation but by those who can bring about moral, inspired and unifying leadership. The seed of this kind of  leadership the MILF should start to plant now than later.

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