Dinner over the Bangsamoro problem

FROM A DISTANCE - Carmen N. Pedrosa () - September 14, 2008 - 12:00am

Last night we had four members of the MILF panel as guests for dinner.

 Veronica, my daughter who now anchors for Al-Jazeera, had come back from Cotabato and saw how things were on the ground. Our guests were Mohagher Iqbal, chair of the MILF panel, Michael Mastura, Jun Matawil, secretary and Rashid Ladiasan, head, secretariat of ceasefire.

Mike, I knew from earlier days but it was my first time to meet Iqbal, Matawil and Ladiasan. The last two were younger members but just the same looked unlikely rebels and terrorists. I had prepared dinner to find out for myself if social conversation, the type that is not intended to convince or persuade participants to accept your own opinions or come around to do what you want them to do. It was to be freewheeling.

It was Veronica who opened the conversation of what she thought was at the bottom of recent events, including and especially the failed MOA-AD that was initialed in Kuala Lumpur. It was her opinion that the issue of arriving at a negotiated settlement between GRP and MILF to achieve peace in the region was being held hostage by political and business elites in Manila as well as in Mindanao.

In her view the terms of the agreement when and if finally concluded would have come closest to achieving peace in Mindanao. It will never happen again. Not now. Not in 2010.

It was obvious that our guests were crestfallen at the prospect that nothing will come of all the work and detail so painstakingly worked out by both members of the panel. I suppose that if that is how they felt, it was the same with members of the government panel. But I was not privy to their side. The issue, as far as media and decision makers were concerned, was to stop any agreement with the MILF at this time if it would involve constitutional change. It was merely an Arroyo pitch to stay beyond 2010.

It is useless to go through the details of that initialed MOA. The only relevant concern as far as the holders of the keys to the status quo was concerned, anything that involved constitutional change must be rejected even at the cost of thousands of life and limb.

In other words, Mike added, as it has now turned out, the items on the negotiating table in Kuala Lumpur were not deliverable.

Veronica talked about the hundreds of displaced families waiting for food in evacuation centers, too frightened to return to their homes.

Both sides were at fault. Earlier MILF fighters occupied villages in North Cotabato, attacked five towns in Lanao del Norte — MILF response to the Supreme Court’s temporary restraining order against the signing of the MOA-AD in Kuala Lumpur. But was it that hopeless, I asked Chairman Iqbal. OK, let’s accept that unfortunate things have happened. But, here and now, as we sit around this table. what can we do to restore peace and return to the negotiating table. Stop hostilities, he said. But that will have to come from both sides, I retorted. Will you do your part?

Chairman Iqbal’s sounded softer than he had been quoted in statements to the press when he allegedly said “only signing the MOA-AD would bring peace”.

That was not the sense I got during the dinner. The doors were not entirely closed and that they would be amenable to further negotiations on the points of the MOA outlined in Kuala Lumpur. I did not hear Chairman Iqbal say at anytime during the dinner that it was a “done deal”.

What about the conspiracy theory that has been written so much about because of the Hashim Salamat letters to President George Bush?

MILF Chairman Hashim Salamat did write a letter to President George Bush on January 20, 2003, but it was not about any conspiracy. Both Veronica and I were given autographed copies of the book by Salamat Hashim. It contains portions of the letters and its contents were publicly acknowledged by President Bush when he addressed the Joint Session of Congress when he visited the Philippines last and Mastura commented he was surprised it was not picked up by media. Here are portions of the letters:

“We take this opportunity to inform your Excellency that the MILF is a national liberation organization with leadership supported by the Bangsamoro people and with the legitimate political goal to pursue the right of the Moro nation to determine its future and political status.

As part of this process we have an ongoing negotiation with the Government of the Republic of the Philippines to arrive at a negotiated political settlement of the Mindanao conflict and the Bangsamoro problem through the mediation and tender of the good offices of the Government of Malaysia.

Further he added, “We appeal to the basic principle of American fairness and sense of justice to use President Bush’s good offices ‘in rectifying the error that continues to negate and derogate the Bangsamoro people’s fundamental right to seek decolonization under the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 1514 (XV) of 1960.”

In response to these letters, the MILF was not tagged as a terrorist organization. Moreover the US State department called for the peaceful conclusion of the Moro-Filipino conflict.

Also in the book is a list of policy guidelines, Salamat pointed, to what will solve the problem. “The solution to the problem is very simple: that is to observe human rights, respect the will of the Bangsamoro people and pave the way for democratic processes — a referendum to be conducted by the United Nations. The MILF respects the will of the people. Whatever will be the outcome of a referendum conducted by the UN will be respected and observed. The Front believes in democracy. It sees no contradiction between Islam and democracy. In fact the MILF believes that democracy is the best system of governance.”

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