Still uneasy peace in Mindanao

COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva - The Philippine Star

If there is any incumbent government official who has invested so much effort – even to lay down one’s life to attain enduring peace in Mindanao – it would be none other than National Security Adviser (NSA) Hermogenes Esperon Jr. A graduate of the Philippine Military Academy (PMA) Class 1974, Esperon reached the apex of his military career in 2006 when he was picked to become the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) chief of staff by ex-president Arroyo. Subsequently after his retirement in 2008, Mrs. Arroyo appointed him as Secretary of the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process.

Now 67 years old, Esperon recalled with a tinge of sadness how the Filipino nation became deeply divided during the 1960s. It was during this period when the secessionist war in Mindanao broke out almost at the same time the communist insurgency pushed their armed struggle to topple the government in our country.

Several decades of the Muslim secessionist war, Esperon is only too happy today to report that genuine and lasting peace in Mindanao may be finally near at hand. Not discounting possible renewed efforts by “spoilers,” Esperon boldly predicts the aspiration of Muslims, Christians, and lumads to attain enduring peace in Mindanao is within grasp under the present administration of President Rodrigo Duterte.

Esperon talked about these latest government actions to implement the main component of the peace agreement with all the Muslim secessionist groups in Mindanao during our Kapihan sa Manila Bay last Wednesday at Café Adriatico in Remedios Circle, Malate. “We have a new beginning in Mindanao,” Esperon declared.

During our Kapihan sa Manila Bay weekly news forum, Esperon delivered a brief report on the state of the security situation in our country starting off with the onset of the political season that culminates in the May 13 mid-term elections. Esperon cited the successful holding one after the other of two plebiscites that overwhelmingly ratified the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL) and set the tone for the mid-term elections to a good start.

With the BOL ratified already, Esperon felt vindicated by the peaceful and orderly transition of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) to the newly created 80-man Bangsamoro Transition Authority (BTA). The transition took place last Tuesday in Cotabato City which is now part of the newly created Bangsamoro Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (BARMM).

Vindicated because Esperon once served as presidential adviser on the Peace Process during the administration of former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo when the Supreme Court (SC) scuttled the controversial Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD) of the government with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). Esperon recalled he was already in Kuala Lumpur – since Malaysia is the third party broker of the government-MILF peace talks – when the political opposition leaders were able to secure the SC injunction that effectively stopped the Executive Department from signing the MOA-AD for its alleged constitutional infirmities.

Ironically, Esperon cited, the same political opposition who succeeded Mrs. Arroyo were the same ones who concluded the 2014 peace agreement with the MILF containing basically the same provisions that were ratified under the BOL. These are, he pointed out, now under the expanded jurisdiction of the ARMM that includes Cotabato City and Lanao del Norte.

The BTA will serve as the transitory body before the ARMM would be replaced by the BARMM whose officials would be voted into office in the May 2022 elections yet. President Duterte had earlier named MILF leader Murad Ebrahim as chief minister of the BTA. As agreed upon under the government’s peace agreement with the MILF, more than half of the BTA would be composed of MILF, including Murad. The other half of the BTA would also be appointed by the President from the ranks of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF).

The MILF is a splinter group of the MNLF that was once headed by chairman Nur Misuari. The MNLF, however, has further splintered into several other factions feuding for leadership after Misuari’s ouster as its erstwhile chieftain.

Esperon is a veteran of the secessionist war of the government forces against both the MNLF and the MILF, first as a young Lieutenant, fresh from PMA graduation. He was then brigade commander in Raja Muda which was then the center of the biggest MILF camp in North Cotabato. “I no longer think of that war in 2001-2002,” he quipped.

While he may have battled against these Muslim secessionist rebels during his entire military career, Esperon noted with optimism the former Muslim warriors, too, are most ardent in working out with the government the ways to peace.

“Today, what is in front of us is a new narrative of the secessionist movement where the MILF and the MNLF are joining hands to rule over what we call the new Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao. This is Part-2 by the way, after the 1996 peace agreement with the MNLF,” Esperon pointed out.

Incidentally, President Duterte announced last Wednesday night at Malacañang Palace the government’s willingness to strike a new peace pact with Misuari’s MNLF faction. The announcement came after the President and Misuari met at the Palace last Monday night when President Duterte met with erstwhile Misuari who has kept a distance from the MILF peace deal with the government.

Misuari’s MNLF faction is the only group acknowledged by the influential Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) as representing the Filipino Muslims. Misuari is now advocating federalism for the Bangsamoro people.

Is federalism the new peace deal with Misuari?

Once details are laid down and put in place in the government’s peace agreements with all the feuding factions of the Muslim secessionist groups, Esperon believes everything else follows. Still the uneasy peace in Mindanao requires good faith by all stakeholders for positive development to take root on firm grounds.



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