Plan B

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - January 5, 2016 - 9:00am

After the long Christmas break, Congress returns to work on Jan. 19. The first anniversary of the carnage in Mamasapano, Maguindanao is on Jan. 25. That’s when Sen. Grace Poe intends to reopen her panel’s probe into the slaughter of 44 police commandos by combined forces of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF).

Even if lawmakers won’t be swayed by public sentiment on the deaths of the 44 Special Action Force (SAF) members, it’s doubtful that the two chambers of Congress can agree on a final version of the Bangsamoro Basic Law, or whatever is the latest name given to the BBL, any time soon.

Members of the House of Representatives seem more confident of passing their version of the BBL. But the fate of the measure is uncertain in the Senate, where even some members of the administration coalition have been openly skeptical about the peace deal with the MILF after Mamasapano.

So it makes sense for the Third Party Monitoring Team, the independent body tracking the implementation of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro, to call for a Plan B in case Congress fails to pass the BBL and leaves the peace process in limbo.

Alistair MacDonald, the amiable Scot who chairs the monitoring team, is not one to give up easily on the peace process. Since his days as ambassador of the European Union, he and the EU have cheered on the peace efforts with the MILF.

Britain, in fact, has been one of the strongest supporters of the Mindanao peace process. The support included bringing to Manila prominent former fighters of the Irish Republican Army together with prominent personalities from the other side, to show Pinoys that former enemies can live together. The UK’s current ambassador, Asif Ahmad, has sustained his government’s support.

Drawing on their experience in ending the internecine violence in Northern Ireland, the Brits’ message is that the road to peace is almost always tortuous, but the dividends are immense when peace is achieved. When the going gets tough, the tough get going: it may be a cliché, but the British advice boils down to it.

MacDonald is an optimist on peace processes. But he is also realistic enough (and he has been here long enough, from his first posting in the 1990s) to see when something in the Philippines calls for Plan B.

* * *

What might be Plan B? The short answer is to just wait for a new administration to come in and claim the peace process as its own. All new administrations like to have a peace process going. If a peace deal is sealed with the MILF under President Aquino’s watch, the next administration might reach out to the BIFF, which is now acting as the MILF did when it broke away from Nur Misuari’s Moro National Liberation Front.

The long answer is not sexy or headline grabbing, and it seems like too much work without instant glory or political brownie points within six months: enforce the law, deliver basic services and govern the conflict areas.

This may seem like a given, but at this point the government seems to be either unable or unwilling to even protect the power transmission towers that have been bombed in recent weeks, making the power situation in Mindanao even more precarious than before. The bombings are being blamed on the BIFF, and by now even government officials must have an iota of suspicion that the group may be working in tandem with certain elements of the MILF.

While some compromises are made in a peace process, a government cannot bend over too far backwards, neglecting law enforcement and governance in the name of peace negotiations. This was a lament of the SAF in Mamasapano, that help came too late and it lost 44 men because the government was in panic not over the lives of an entire company of police commandos going after two top terrorists, but over the fate of the peace agreement.

At the time, the government peace panel was finalizing the protocol for decommissioning, the preferred euphemism for disarmament, with the MILF. The signing of the protocol pushed through as scheduled in Kuala Lumpur four days after Mamasapano. It was a significant step in the peace process, but coming on the heels of the SAF carnage, critics lamented that the photo of the signing ceremony looked like the government was congratulating the MILF (and by extension, the BIFF) for a stupendous kill.

In the campaign for the 2010 general elections, several of the presidential aspirants told The STAR, when asked about their plans for bringing peace to Mindanao, that they would initiate grassroots negotiations with warring clans and tribes while at the same time exploring options with the MILF.

The talking, we were told, would be accompanied by intensified law enforcement and development efforts. The candidates said it would be risky to put all the peace eggs in one basket.

Even if a peace agreement is forged, it’s no magic bullet; like newly restored democracy, a lot of heavy lifting by the government together with all sectors is needed to make a peace deal work.

Plan B is doing all those things, even without a law creating the Bangsamoro.

Easier said than done, but so is passing that law.

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