In The News

Internationals, Malaysia, and Negotiations for Peace in the Philippines

October 17, 2012

It has been an exciting and emotional 10 days for the peace process between the Philippine government and the country’s largest rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which looks to end 40 years of conflict that has left a reported 150,000 dead and devastated the economy. It culminated on Monday with an all-star cast witnessing the signing in the Presidential Palace between the two peace panels of the Framework Agreement for the Bangsamoro, witnessed by President Benigno Simeon Aquino III and Malaysian Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak.

A soldier in the southern Philippines

On Oct. 15, President Aquino signed the Framework Agreement between the MILF and the Philippine government which looks to end 40 years of conflict between the two parties. Photo/Karl Grobl

As you can imagine, a veritable flood of articles rolled out over the by-lines of many respected analysts: Rudy Rodil (parts 1, 2, 3, and 4), Carol Arguillas, Jess Dureza, Tony LaVina (parts 1 and 2), Benedicto Bacani, Bong Montesa, and Pat Diaz, to name a few. Anyone interested in the peace process can spend a lot of very productive time reading through all of this – but I’d like to add a little more to this analysis by focusing on the international dimension, given my role as The Asia Foundation’s representative on the International Contact Group (ICG) for the GPH-MILF peace talks.

One of the tiresome aspects of being on the ICG is the repeated conflation of the role of the ICG with that of “guarantor” and the search for “adequate clout to compel” an agreement. As negotiations have twisted and turned, with pessimism occasionally breaking out, in consultations and press statements we have often been exhorted to pressure the parties to resume negotiations, make progress, take particular substantive stands (“Uphold the MOA-AD”), and reach closure.

In reality, in both design and practice, the ICG is a creature of the two parties and their Third Party Facilitator, Malaysia. My colleagues on the ICG from Conciliation Resources, Kristian Herbolzheimer and Emma Leslie, have written about the hybrid nature of the peace process in which the ICG participates.

Each of the four states (Japan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United Kingdom) and four international nongovernmental organizations (The Asia Foundation, Conciliation Resources, Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, and Muhammadiyah) has its own mandates, programs of activities, and goals with respect to peace in Mindanao. As a body, however, the ICG attends negotiations to watch the formal sessions and technical working groups, speaking when spoken to. We meet on occasion to update each other, to be briefed by one or the other of the panels, or to discuss what we collectively might say when asked for our opinion in the negotiations (which is rarely).

A moment’s reflection will lead to the conclusion that this lack of “clout” is unsurprising. The Philippines is not a failed state. Even when the Organization of the Islamic Conference credibly could threaten to wield the weapon of an oil embargo back in the mid-1970s, then President Ferdinand Marcos easily avoided fully abiding by the 1976 Tripoli Agreement with the Moro National Liberation Front. In contemporary Philippines there are many domestic constituencies – both Christian and Muslim – that are more important in the calculations of an elected government than the opinions of some international experts on the peace process, development, and diplomacy.

The MILF, the organized Muslim separatist group currently in negotiations with the government, has been an organized revolutionary movement for some 30 years, surviving many shifts of fortune and occasional armed onslaughts by the Armed Forces of the Philippines. One of its primordial concerns is unity in its ranks, and it successfully instituted in 2003 a succession after the death of its founding Chair, Hashim Salamat.

Neither protagonists is likely to be easily compelled. That said, however, there are clearly roles that can be played by international actors, ways they can help protagonists move toward a negotiated solution that is in the interest of both entities, and connections they can facilitate between domestic stakeholders and the negotiation process. More than any other country in Asia, the Philippines has welcomed international involvement in the resolution of internal conflicts, with currently an elaborate architecture including nine countries (Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Turkey, United Kingdom, Japan, and Norway), two international organizations (the European Union and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation), five international NGOs (the four on the ICG plus Nonviolent Peaceforce on the Civilian Protection Component of the International Monitoring Team), along with three domestic NGOs (Mindanao People’s Caucus, Mindanao Human Rights Action Center, and the Muslim Organization of Government and Other Professionals) that are part of the Civilian Protection Component.

This complex architecture is represented in the below diagram (produced by the Office of the Presidential Advisor on the Peace Process), but even this complexity leaves out the Organization of Islamic Cooperation which has observer status for the negotiation.

GPH-MILF Architecture 2012

While the ICG has undoubtedly been important in negotiations, Malaysia has played a critical role that seems under appreciated, at least if judged by news coverage. The Aquino administration was originally reluctant to have Malaysia continue to provide facilitation, as they had since being invited by former President Arroyo in 2001. However, over the course of 18 months of difficult negotiation, the facilitator (Tengku Dato’ AB Ghafar Tengku Mohamed) gradually won the trust of both parties.

As Prime Minister Najib so eloquently said at the signing ceremony:

“Today, we pay tribute to the quiet bravery of negotiations: to the many years and countless hours spent in search of shared understanding. In confronting their differences and finding common ground.”

This blog is partially based on a talk given on October 12 in Canberra, hosted by the Australian National University.

Steven Rood is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in the Philippines, and represents the Foundation as part of the International Contact Group for the GPH-MILF negotiations. He can be reached at srood@asiafound.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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