Can there be peace in Mindanao?

Published by rudy Date posted on November 14, 2009

(Speech delivered before the Rotary Club of Manila 101
on November 13, 2009, Tower Club, Makati City.)

MANILA, Philippines – A Manila broadsheet recently reported the signing of a GRP-MILF accord calling for the establishment of an International Contact Group (ICG) – a body that will be composed of major foreign government stakeholders in addition to Malaysia – which will harness, among others, their clout and suasive influence to help end the war in Mindanao.

As reported, this development was the result of a proposal made by MILF Chairman Ibrahim Al-Haj Murad after the collapse of the peace talks last year. In this connection, Chairman Murad and Chief Negotiator Mahoghar Iqbal should be given credit for their tenacity and firmness in invoking the urgent need to ensure and guarantee the expeditious implementation of the terms and conditions of any formal comprehensive peace agreement that will be agreed upon and signed by the government and the MILF.

The attention and positive action given by the government side indicates an apparent “cooling off period” or “simmering down” of the war of nerves and saber-rattling, antagonistic rhetoric and vehement blame-game public statements from both sides in the ongoing overt and backdoor peace negotiation.

Another indication of the positive development in the peace process was the recent visit to the principal MILF Camp by high-level US State Department officials where they met with MILF Chairman Murad. Furthermore, the US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton clearly expressed that the United States supports the early resumption and success of the peace talks during her current visit here in Manila.

Let us all hope that these developments signify a breakthrough in jumpstarting the re-opening of the peace talks – and better still — provide the needed impetus or suasive influence to forge the conclusion and signing of a comprehensive GRP-MILF Peace Agreement before our President steps down from office in 2010.

This is consistent with the desire of the international community, as well as the majority of our people – Muslims, Christians, and Indigenous Peoples alike. That is, to end the war in Mindanao in order that the victims of the conflict can go on with their lives and work for their future and future generations.

The government and the MILF should be reminded that they should listen and accept realities that in any negotiation, exercise pragmatism and flexibility in order to break deadlocks and arrive at an agreement or conflict transformation that shall result in positive social change in the life of the people emerging from the war – in this case the people of Mindanao.

It is time for the MILF to consider accepting the fact that the Philippine government will support and strengthen the political, economic, social and religious leadership of the MILF in certain areas in Mindanao under the spirit and intent of the Philippine Constitution, but it will not enter into an agreement that will provide reasons or avenues for the MILF to secede in the immediate or distant future.

The current peace talks between the government and the MILF are covering practically the same issues, areas or places and people that are discussed or covered by the peace negotiation between the government and the Moro National Liberation Front or MNLF. Hence, let us all be reminded that the acceptance and recognition by the MNLF of the Philippine Constitution – and its concurrence to submit for ratification any peace agreement to a plebiscite, led to a breakthrough and eventual conclusion and signing of the 1996 GRP-MNLF Peace Agreement.

Let me recall at this point the wisdom and pragmatism of the late MILF Founder and Chairman Salamat Hashim who appointed me as MILF Emissary Extraordinary and concurrent Chairman of the MILF Economic Development Committee although I was not – and never was – a member of the MILF. He listened to advice. He favorably acted on recommendations for the return of the MILF to the negotiating table and to place at center stage socio-economic development and education of the people as major talking points in the GRP-MILF Peace Talks. He made the first move in initiating and entering into a GRP-MILF understanding and cooperation in reconstruction and development. He also appealed in writing to the United States government for help in understanding the Bangsamoro situation, and implied his genuine desire in winning the peace or in ending the war in Mindanao. These are significant developments in the history of the conflict in the region because they signified a shift in the MILF policy from “radicalism” to “moderation” that in turn, resulted in the drawing up of a plan to convert some of the 46 or 48 MILF camps or territories into Special Economic Zones and establish a Peace and Development Fund or Trust Fund in cooperation with major foreign stakeholders that will finance Post-War reconstruction and development. I have first-hand knowledge of this initiative because I was the one who conceptualized and obtained approval of both sides to cooperate and support my recommendation in converting some MILF territories into Special Economic Zones.

This initiative unfortunately was overtaken by events when the government suddenly waged an all-out war against the MILF.

Be that as it may, this idea of creating several strategically located Special Economic Zones in the MINSUPALA region is still relevant, pertinent and viable today when viewed as part of an over-all national Post-War reconstruction and development program and strategy. (MINSUPALA is the acronym for Mindanao, Sulu and Palawan.)

Let me touch on the situation on the ground in Mindanao. Those who have not been to Mindanao – whether foreigners or Filipinos – may probably think that the whole of Mindanao or the Southern Philippines for that matter, is on fire – that many people are killed every day, that there is rampant looting, burning and destroying of properties everywhere, that kidnapping is the order of the day, and people in general live and crouch in fear.

The truth of the matter is that the region is swarming with foreign nationals that comprise businessmen and professionals, and developments are going on unabated. To me, these businessmen and their principals   are not only clever, but rather, they are astute in the sense that they are preparing themselves to be adequately and strategically positioned before any peace accord is concluded.

A case in point is the recent success of SPDA when I assumed as Chairman in convincing investors to invest towards the development and transformation of large tracts of SPDA idle lands into productive states. Such projects will employ thousands of people, generate investments into the billions of pesos – and most important, directly contribute to the attainment of a lasting peace in the region, or our country for that matter. We can also cite other examples of undertakings – new and old – that are successfully operating even in the absence of a GRP-MILF Peace Agreement.

Nevertheless, we must accept the fact that a formal conclusion and signing of a GRP-MILF Peace Agreement that is witnessed and recognized by many foreign governments around the world will immensely help towards the establishment of the necessary atmosphere and setting for massive post-war investments in reconstruction and development – a stimulus that is needed to achieve a lasting peace in our country.  –Saeed A. Daof (philstar.com), Chairman, Southern Philippines Development Authority

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