The MoA, the Cha Cha, and the U.S. Ambassador

So much controversy has surrounded the signing of the Memorandum of Agreement on ancestral domain between the Arroyo government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). In stead of engendering peace, it has led to the escalation of the conflict; in stead of bringing about unity and the community of peoples, it has led to tensions between the MILF and the affected communities of North Cotabato. Events became clearer when suddenly the Arroyo government began pushing for charter change purportedly to achieve peace in Mindanao; and US ambassador Kristie Kenney showed up in the aborted signing of the MoA in Malaysia.

Vol. VIII, no. 28, August 17-23, 2008

So much controversy has surrounded the signing of the Memorandum of Agreement (MoA) on ancestral domain between the Arroyo government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). In stead of engendering peace, it has led to the escalation of the conflict; in stead of bringing about unity and the community of peoples, it has led to tensions between the MILF and the affected communities of North Cotabato, no less aided by the word war between Vice Gov. Emmanuel “Manny” Piñol and ‘peace’ adviser Hermogenes Esperon.

The controversy came to a head with the declaration of the Arroyo government that it’s “all systems go” for charter change, purportedly to initiate the shift to federalism to accommodate the demands of the MILF for autonomy. This stirred the hornet’s nest.

Meanwhile, Sen. Joker Arroyo raised questions regarding the presence of US Ambassador Kristie Kenney in the aborted signing of the Memorandum of Agreement with the MILF in Malaysia. Quick to the defense was Justice Sec. Raul Gonzalez who castigated people for questioning the presence of Ambassador Kenney, which to him was normal.

Clearly, there are three interested parties in the ongoing negotiations between the government and the MILF.

First is the MILF and the Bangsamoro people.

The struggle of the Bangsamoro people for their right to self-determination dates back to the American colonial period. It was revived with the Jabidah massacre and the formation of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) in 1968. The armed conflict between the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the MNLF erupted upon the declaration of Martial Law. The Organization of Islamic Conference intervened and pushed for peace talks between the Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP) and the MNLF.

Talks between the GRP and the MNLF gained some ground with the 1976 Tripoli Agreement, which declared the ”establishment of Autonomy in the Southern Philippines within the realm of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Republic of the Philippines.” The “areas of autonomy for the Muslims in the Southern Philippines”, as provided for by the Tripoli agreement are Basilan, Sulu, Tawi Tawi, Zamboanga del Sur, Zamboanga del Norte, North Cotabato, Maguindanao, Sultan Kudarat, Lanao del Norte, Lanao del Sur, Davao del Sur, South Cotabato, Palawan, and “all the cities and villages situated in the above-mentioned areas.” The autonomous government would have had a Legislative Assembly and an Executive Council. Courts implementing the Islamic Shari’a laws would have been set-up. And they should have had their own economic and financial system. In addition, a “reasonable percentage” derived from revenues from mines and mineral resources should have been allotted “for the benefit of the areas of autonomy.”

But it was only in 1996 when the Final Peace Agreement was signed. According to the agreement, Phase 1, lasting three years, began with the issuance of the Executive Order establishing the Special Zone of Peace and Development and the Southern Philippine Council for Peace and Development. Phase II should have involved the amendment or repeal of the Organic Act of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) or RA 6734. In a plebiscite in November 2001 only Marawi city and Basilan (except Isabela city) elected to be part of the ARMM.

It took 20 years from the signing of the Tripoli agreement before a Final Peace Agreement was sealed. And after more than ten years after the Final Peace Agreement was forged, seemingly the implementation has barely gone beyond Phase 1. The implementation or non-implementation of the Final Peace Agreement has been a constant source of tension between the GRP and the MNLF and has led to sporadic fighting between AFP and MNLF forces.

Without settling the problems in the implementation of the Final Peace Agreement with the MNLF, the Arroyo government entered into a MoA with the MILF covering the same areas. The past few weeks manifested the sincerity, or rather the lack of it, of the Arroyo government in responding to the historic demand of the Bangsamoro people for self-determination. The Arroyo government made a show of insisting on the MoA with the MILF while leaving the MNLF – which is waiting for the long overdue review of the implementation of the peace agreement – hanging in the balance, and at the same time, pushing through with the ARMM elections with its political allies in Mindanao taking control over the ARMM. By doing so it is dividing the Bangsamoro people.

Worse, it is trying to provoke a conflict between Moro and Christian communities by making the MILF believe that the MoA is a done deal while keeping the provisions of the agreement a secret thereby unsettling Christian and Lumad communities.

And for what? A lot of people think the Arroyo government is merely providing an excuse for pushing for charter change to keep itself in power beyond 2010. Obviously, the Arroyo government is the second interest group. It claims that its only purpose in pushing for charter change is to achieve peace in Mindanao. But its actions belie its supposed intentions.

If it genuinely wanted to achieve peace in Mindanao, it could have settled the unresolved issues with the MNLF early on. This is not to say that the MNLF and MILF are one and the same and that solving the problems with the implementation of the MNLF peace agreement would likewise resolve the conflict with the MILF. But if the government was not able to implement the peace agreement with the MNLF, which required less concessions from it, how can it be relied on to implement the MoA with the MILF? Besides both the MNLF and the MILF are working for the benefit of the whole Bangsamoro people. Which brings us to the next point.

Why is it that after more than 30 years of the Tripoli agreement and more than ten years after the signing of the Final Peace Agreement, the Bangsamoro people remain marginalized, oppressed and in a deteriorating state of poverty? How could things be different if the MoA and a final peace agreement is signed with the MILF? If the government is serious in working for peace and development in Mindanao it could have addressed the problems of marginalization and poverty besetting the Bangsamoro people early on. But it did not. And now it is suddenly concerned with peace in Mindanao. Did it experience an epiphany of sorts that it suddenly decided to become magnanimous or is the government taking the MILF for a ride? Why is it in a hurry to forge a deal with less than two years before it is supposed to step down? Why is there a sudden urgent need to shift to a federal system of government?

This government has never been known to uphold democratic processes or people’s rights. On the contrary, during the last seven years of its rule, all it did was to keep itself in power at all costs through political maneuvering and through bribing, rewarding and accommodating politically its allies, and harassing, killing and abducting its critics. Perhaps that is not all it did because it has also been involved in numerous corruption scandals. That is why, it is to Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s interest to keep itself in power beyond 2010 or to at least ensure that an ally would succeed her.

The third interested party is the US. More than half of aid from the US government is pouring into Mindanao. US troops have established a continuous presence in Mindanao since 2001 through the Balikatan joint military exercises as well as for “trainings” through the Joint Special Operations Task Force Philippines. The US is as interested in bringing democracy and development to the Bangsamoro people as much as it does with the Iraqi and Afghan people. After all, the Philippines was declared by the US as the “second front in the war against terror.”

The positioning of the US in Mindanao is all about geopolitics, securing US interests in the region, and access to the island’s rich natural resources, including oil and natural gas. The report that Eid Kabalu of the MILF hinted that US authorities approached them to secure their agreement to the establishment of US bases in Mindanao once a final peace agreement is forged is not surprising.

The Bangsamoro people is dealing with forces that have oppressed it for centuries, the US and the GRP. Worse, it is dealing with an administration that knows no bounds in its greed for power and wealth, and does not respect any institution or process in its efforts at political survival. It is also dealing with the almighty US that is deeply in crisis and is preoccupied not with spreading democracy and development but with asserting its political-military hegemony and protecting its economic interests. The involvement of the US in Mindanao is not about development, it is about its self-proclaimed “war on terror.” The motive of the Arroyo government is not to grant genuine autonomy to the Bangsamoro people but to perpetuate itself in power. And they have been pitting the Bangsamoro and the Filipino people against each other to achieve this. How can the Bangsamoro people then achieve genuine peace and development under this government? (

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