Chief government negotiator Miriam Coronel-Ferrer: ‘You cannot be selfish’

Paolo Romero (The Philippine Star) - February 23, 2014 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - Government peace negotiator may not have been something she considered when she was younger, but Miriam Coronel-Ferrer has been preparing all her life for just such a task.

Coronel, 54, recalls that her first encounter with Mindanao was during a freshman dance at the Philippine Science High School, when her partner asked what tribe she belonged to.

“I was surprised by the question, which led me to seek out people from Mindanao,” Ferrer tells STARweek. “When I got to college, I was a bit more exposed to the issues on Mindanao.”

As a student at the University of the Philippines, she became aware of the conflicts involving the communist insurgency and protest actions but Mindanao never left her mind. She wrote an extensive paper on issues involving the region for the Collegian, UP’s official student paper.

After college, she became an advocate for various peace and human rights issues; she was part of the international campaign to ban landmines that won the Nobel Peace Prize. She was also part of international fact-finding missions investigating reports of violence and human rights violations in Cambodia, East Timor and Nepal.

Ferrer was also one of the convenors of the Program on Peace, Democratization and Human Rights of the UP Center of Integrative and Development Studies from 2003 to 2005. She was director of the UP Third World Studies Center before joining the government peace panel staff. She was appointed chief negotiator in December 2012.

I think I got my father’s traits. He was very slow to get angry. I saw him angry only a few times, like when my friend crashed the car or broke our sliding door while skateboarding – but hardly,” Ferrer says. It was likely this temperament that enabled her to convince the other side – battle-hardened negotiators from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front – to talk peace.

Her father, the late Antonio Coronel, was a top-notch criminal lawyer who defended former first lady Imelda Marcos as well as the late STAR columnist Luis Beltran in the libel case filed by the late President Corazon Aquino.

“Even in family discussions, he was cool. Maybe I got that one, that it’s important to keep your cool... Also intense anger or hatred of anyone, I don’t feel that, maybe resentment but not really hate or anger. It’s important because it helps you balance how you see things,” she says.

Ferrer considers negotiations on taxes and revenue-sharing, as well as the 2013 election period, among the most difficult times for the peace talks. She was worried that the gap between the elections and the next round of negotiations would be too long and anything could happen.

“It was like chess, we make a move, but it was not our intention to checkmate anybody but simply to find a good compromise where everybody will be able live with the outcome,” she says.

The government panel had a very clear mandate on how far it could go in granting concessions, and the MILF considered issues on revenue sharing and ancestral domain as the core of the entire process.

“Part of their identity is rooted in land and the wealth it provides, we knew at that time these were very sensitive issues. They claim to have preceded the State, and believe they have entitlement, having preceded the State in terms of history, but the present constitutional framework could not simply accommodate that,” she explains.

Ferrer admits the panel also had to “negotiate inside government” as they had to “rally everybody to open their minds and have a broader perspective of what we were trying to achieve, by way of a peaceful resolution at the end it all.”


Every meeting, held at the Palace of the Golden Horses at the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, had its ups and downs. Malaysia has been acting as facilitator of the talks.

“Usually, in our sequencing, we settle the easier issues, then you get to the difficult ones so you have no choice but to address this, in some instances, a lot of exchange deals. You throw a card on the table, you throw an offer on the table, you accept this if you agree to take away this one, and we counter offer, it makes the atmosphere very light, even if it was hard bargaining, but because you were doing some kind of trading, barter trade, it lightens up the mood,” she says.

“The spirit there is that you cannot be selfish, you cannot be the one getting all the time, you have to be giving also, it’s not like you’re doing all the taking. So in that sense you are forced to make compromises,” she adds.

When the debates became heated and emotional, the Malaysian facilitator would tap his hand on the table and call for a 20- or 30-minute break. The head of the negotiating panel of either side would sometimes also call for a break.

“For the smokers, they go out and smoke, there are smokers from both sides, the facilitator also smokes. We non-smokers go to the snack room or go around,” Ferrer says.

There’s no mall nearby to go to during breaks as the venue, an old mining estate converted into a hotel, is about 40 minutes from the city center, she shares.

Before the start of a meeting with their MILF counterparts, Ferrer says she and her colleagues strategize and assign who will front for a particular agenda, and the rest would back him or her up.

“We have defined styles. Sometimes you need to soften a style. We ask someone to do it. Some with legal and constitutional expertise, we need someone to do that. When it becomes emotional, some members of the panel are better at that and then we help,” she says. “We’re always trying to read them (MILF negotiators) and we know they’re always trying to read us.”

Personally, she sometimes does yoga exercises before and after the talks.

Ferrer describes members of the panel as a “good mix” and has only good words for negotiators, including former agriculture secretary Senen Bacani and Undersecretary Yasmin Busran Lao – a Bangsamoro – and Undersecretaries Zenonida Brosas and Chito Gascon, and former Commission on Elections commissioner Mehol Sadain.

Even when the talks became difficult, government negotiators never thought of quitting.

“We’ve always been united on this. But you know, it never got that far, we may have joked about quitting. On the one hand, of course they (MILF) were coming from the perspective that they were the aggrieved party and when they let off steam, when they emote, we had to absorb all these, it’s part of trying to understand the history and the emotions that are carried in them, including of course the alienation they’ve historically felt against government. So government, in that sense, had for the most part, to remain cool in order to cross the emotional, the historical barriers. But otherwise on the whole, we just kept plodding on,” she says.

If she was not appointed negotiator, Ferrer says she would still be a professor but would still be active in different peace advocacies outside government, providing options and recommendations.

“It is important that in civil society, you just don’t do rallies or oppose, but be able provide some of the solution,” she says.

Ferrer says she wants to be remembered as someone who helped unite the country.

“Many are saying this (negotiations) is a formula for separation but we hope that after sometime, those who view this process as a formula for division will realize that it brought about that kind of peace and unity that we’ve never had as a country,” she says.

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