In The News

Basilan Clash Reveals Danger of Stalled Progress in Peace Talks in Southern Philippines

November 2, 2011

Over the past 90 days, the peace process between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) has been through the best of times and the worst of times. At the beginning of August, President Noynoy Aquino met MILF Chairman Murad; a couple of weeks later the MILF peace panel “rejected” a government draft presented to them in Kuala Lumpur; subsequent to that, the Malaysian Facilitator undertook shuttle diplomacy to arrange another meeting early in November. In the meantime, a breakaway MILF leader was expelled from the MILF; there was fighting in Western Mindanao; and considerable controversy over government casualties suffered in that conflict. This second set of occurrences demonstrates how important progress in the peace process can be, so that events do not spiral out of control as they did in 2008 when hundreds of thousands were displaced in the wake of violence following the MOA-AD debacle.

This “interesting” (in the purported Chinese curse sense of “may you live in interesting times”) period began with President Noynoy’s insistence on meeting privately with MILF Chairman Murad. President Aquino’s mother, Cory, had met when she was president with Nur Misuari, chairman of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). While she met Misuari on his home island of Sulu, the current president’s meeting with Chairman Murad took place in Japan, one of the countries in the International Contact Group, comprised of a select number of countries and international NGOs (including The Asia Foundation) tasked with supporting peace negotiations between the Philippine government and the MILF to end conflict in Mindanao. By all accounts the meeting went well, with the MILF professing itself convinced of President Aquino’s sincerity.

However, the good feeling did not last long – on August 23 the MILF negotiating panel “rejected” a government draft (dubbed “3 for 1“) presented to them in Kuala Lumpur. The MILF went public with its complaints about the difference between their draft (presented in January) and the government’s draft as being between “heaven and earth.” The government for its part “rejected the rejection” – so that now two drafts were on the table for consideration. Huddles by the International Contact Group brought the two sides briefly back together where they agreed that the Malaysian Facilitator would undertake shuttle diplomacy. He came to the Philippines twice, met separately with the government and the MILF, and the parties had an informal meeting in Kuala Lumpur on November 3.

Yet, while this peace track was ongoing, developments on the ground have continually threatened to escalate to the point where talks would be disrupted. Since early 2011, one of the most powerful commanders in the MILF, Umra Kato, had publically expressed his discontent with the peace process and how he was being treated by the MILF hierarchy. The government panel requested clarification on this matter since many skeptics of the peace process wonder if reaching an agreement with the MILF would generate yet another grouping opposed to that agreement, in the same manner that the 1976 Tripoli Agreement between the Philippine government and the MNLF generated the MILF. The MILF went through a lengthy process of trying to reconcile Kato with the MILF leadership, but finally in September expelled him from the MILF. Kato now styles his movement the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Movement – and in Central Mindanao there is considerable uncertainty as to what will happen next. Will the Armed Forces of the Philippines try to eliminate Kato as a separate force, despite the strength of his group and his past record at evading the AFP?

Speculation such as this unfortunately became reality when, on October 18, a Philippine military effort on the island province of Basilan went wrong, resulting in 19 casualties. Confusion mars the entire event, with the military claiming it was trying to serve an arrest warrant on a person that the MILF claims has been cleared by an investigation. The encounter took place in an area where the AFP has repeatedly taken grisly casualties – and the MILF acknowledge their involvement. The commander of the attack has been relieved, and articles detailing mistakes made by the AFP have proliferated. The government claims they were four kilometers from an acknowledged MILF “Area of Temporary Stay;” the MILF claim the military entered the ATS; and politicians wonder why there should be any place within the territory of the Philippine state that the Philippine military cannot enter.

Another way to look at this latest, most controversial incident is that the elaborate mechanisms to help maintain the current (since July 2009) cessation of violence did not work (they had been working up to then, with very few incidents of AFP-MILF violence in the preceding months).  First of all, there are Coordinating Committees on the Cessation of Hostilities (CCCH) for both the government and the MILF, which are supposed to serve as communication and coordination mechanisms for any troop movements. There is an Ad Hoc Joint Action Group (AHJAG), which is to allow the pursuit of criminal elements near MILF-controlled territories. And, most prominently, there is an International Monitoring Team (IMT) headed by Malaysia, currently 43 personnel strong, which investigates violations agreements to avoid violence. Since 2009, a “Civilian Protection Component” has been added, with four NGOs (one foreign and three domestic) to reinforce the IMT.

Clearly, for reasons that are not yet entirely clear, these mechanisms did not work in the Basilan instance. Moreover, there were often expressions of surprise among observers in Manila that these institutions existed – perhaps not surprisingly since when they work there is no violence and no attention is paid. The Office of the Presidential Assistant on the Peace Process went to the extent of posting the relevant agreements on their webpage so that more media practitioners and others would know about them.

Reaction to the loss of military men’s lives was ferocious – with calls for “all out war,” the cancellation of peace talks, and the resignation of the president’s team involved with peace talks. President Aquino steadfastly resisted these calls, and vowed instead “All Out Justice” – pursuing criminal wrongdoers while continuing the peace talks.

Both the creation of a new group by Umra Kato and the tragic incident in Basilan illustrate the danger of the lack of progress in peace talks – Kato representing those impatient with the slow pace of realizing political demands, and the military encounter demonstrating how violent matters can become when two armed groups maneuver in the same space (a space filled with other armed actors, perceptions of injustice, and poverty). The civilians in both peace panels need to be able to demonstrate to their constituents and stakeholders that talks can help solve problems rather than merely serve as a way to pass the time.

As former peace negotiator Jess Dureza tells it, he was told by former President Fidel V. Ramos with regard to the 1996 Final Peace Agreement with the MNLF, that what was needed was patience, more patience, and more, more patience.

*Please note, this piece has been changed to reflect the news of the November 3 informal meeting.

Steven Rood is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in the Philippines, and sits for the Foundation on the International Contact Group for peace negotiations between the government and the MILF. He can be reached at srood@asiafound.org.

Write a comment:

* Required

Comments are moderated. Please be polite and on-topic.

 characters available