Talking Peace – A Postcard from the Far East


Can this really mean peace? This question swirled in my head as I looked at the draft agreement in my hands. For the past thirty or so years, Filipino Muslim separatists have waged an armed rebellion against the Philippine government. Is it really possible that after seven years of negotiations with the main rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), peace is no more than a signature away?

Sure, why not, I thought. The time seems ripe. People are tired of endless war, the outgoing government is looking for a legacy to leave behind, and with the Malaysian government as a credible third-party facilitator of the peace talks, surely people can finally agree and move on to other important things. Muslim Mindanao, after all, still ranks among the poorest regions in the Philippines. There can be no progress without peace.

My role last summer was supposed to be merely that of a helpful observer, or at most, an assistant to the government legal adviser. At that time, the second phase of the comprehensive peace pact was almost a done deal. The agreement, among others, 1) carved out territorial boundaries which will form the Bangsamoro (literally meaning Muslim nation) Juridical Entity, an autonomous region within the Philippine republic, and 2) recognized the historic right to self-governance of the Moro (a term carrying religious and ethnic connotations) people as a distinct national community.

Substantial contribution on my part would only come in during the third and final phase of the pact where governance issues and the role of the Shari’a or Islamic law in the region were to be discussed. Instead, it turned out to be a deep foray into the constitutional issues raised by an agreement which I felt gave too much but at the same time seemed like the only way to peace.

On the day it was to be signed in Kuala Lumpur, the Supreme Court issued a restraining order and called for oral arguments on the case. Local politicians, driven by fear of the unknown should the MILF gain control of a large chunk of territory, protested the lack of transparency surrounding the negotiations to which the government claimed executive privilege. National leaders cried treason on the part of the President for authorizing not only the inevitable dismemberment of the country, but also such concessions which were clearly beyond the purview of the present constitution, such as the exclusive authority to conduct foreign relations and to exercise power over land, water, and airspace.

Worse, after the signing was suspended, some disgruntled members of the rebel group launched an all-out offensive in some provinces and provoked the military into a small-scale war, leaving hundreds either killed or homeless. By the time I left, even as the constitutionality of the territorial agreement was pending before the Supreme Court, the President had scrapped the peace deal and dissolved the government negotiating panel. They would start again from scratch.

The idea of peace is always deeply intertwined with the question of how much one is willing to pay for its price. In the Philippine context, this basically meant how much land and how much authority the government is willing to concede to buy peace and keep the country intact. This would, of course, include the difficult attempt to amend the constitution to allow for those provisions.

Is peace worth all of it? In reality, even the choice is not always as simple as that. There is a multitude of reasons for the continuation of any long-drawn conflict such as this one, although the question of recognition and difference continues to beg for attention. Do we integrate, or do we accommodate? Should citizenship trump local ethnic or religious affiliations, or can the two coexist? It is easy to lose sight of the identity factor in these kinds of conflict. After all, politics and economics are always the most obvious aspects. But that only goes to show that we often misunderstand what peace really means – it is not the simple absence of war, but a state where different people can make meaningful choices from within their chosen contexts and still coexist.

I did not see peace in my country last summer. But as leaders tend to realize from time to time, there are lots of lessons to be learned from these kinds of experiences. Perhaps there can actually be more than just talk of peace. Though the official negotiating team is no more, the potential for peace in the region now lies in the hands of the very people who are to benefit the most and who will have to live with one another. They deserve to enjoy the actual thing.

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