Calling Mindanao Peace Mediators To Account I: A Failed Peace Agreement

By: Atty. Zainudin S. Malang

(Part I – A Failed Peace Agreement)

In a few weeks from now, early February, a tripartite meeting between the Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP), the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), and the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) will be held in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia in order to sort out the problems in the implementation of the 1996 peace agreement between the two. The fact that this meeting has to be held only highlights the problem the 1996 peace agreement encountered in its implementation.

At this point, to call the agreement successfully implemented, rather than describing it at the very least as having a problematic implementation would be the height of chutzpa. In 1996, people within and outside the autonomous region were expecting the agreement to herald in an era of peace and prosperity not seen in decades. Instead, ten years hence, the component provinces of the region are still the poorest among all of the Philippines’ provinces. Its regional government has the lowest of fiscal allocations of all regions. Its residents have the lowest infant mortality, life expectancy, educational attainment, etc. Moros outside the region are still subjected to all forms of discrimination both by public and private institutions.

On the security side, the region is also the most militarized. Large-scale fighting between the MNLF and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) still occur. Terrorist groups like the ASG still operate. And if that is not enough to convince anyone of the failure, the MNLF’s signatory to the peace agreement is under arrest. The tri-partite meeting itself had to be postponed several times and that in itself an indication of that failure. How can a meeting be held between the GRP and the MNLF when the latter’s signatory won’t be able to attend because he is being incarcerated by the former?

Thankfully, during ceremonies marking the 10th year of the agreement on September of last year, no one dared to refer to those ceremonies as anniversaries or celebrations, not even the government. People are not that blind or insensitive after all.

Thus, the most obvious question on everyone’s minds is why the failure? Under whose watch did it fail? Who dropped the ball in settling the Mindanao conflict?

Analysts of the Mindanao peace process have not been remiss in addressing these questions. There are those who point out the government’s lack of sincerity as well as fiscal support for the regional government. Some even point to the constitutional and democratic limitations faced by the government in implementing the agreement. On their peace partner’s side, others point to the MNLF’s inability to transform itself from a revolutionary organization into one that is more political and administrative. I also heard someone observe the MNLF’s exclusivism in running the affairs of the ARMM and seemed to have forgotten that it fought not for the sake of its members and officers but for the sake of the Bangsamoro.

Most of the existing analyses, however, only look at the responsibility of the GRP and the MNLF in the failure of the agreement. For sure, there is so much blame to go around for these two. However, few look at the responsibility of the mediator, the OIC or more particularly the Committee of the Eight. The MNLF-GRP Peace Process after all is a tripartite peace process - there are two main protagonists (GRP and MNLF) plus the supposedly neutral mediator (OIC).

For purposes of simplicity, one may say that a mediator has two roles. The first is to facilitate the parties’ coming to an agreement as to how they will settle their differences. Success in this aspect is evidenced by a peace agreement. Once that agreement is signed, the mediator’s second responsibility kicks in and that is to make sure that the signatories live up to their end of the agreement. What evidence shall we look for success in this regard? Peace, or lack of fighting, and steady even if slow progress on the development side. In short, everything that is not in the autonomous region now.

Given these two roles, how do we now assess the OIC’s performance? The answer is obvious so perhaps so we should just ask ourselves how did the OIC fail dismally? To answer this question, we may need to look at who in the OIC actually oversaw the GRP-MNLF peace process. In other words, under whose watch did the process fail? Who dropped the ball?

For the unfamiliar, the OIC had delegated to six (now eight) of its member countries the responsibility of mediating the resolution of the conflict, hence the name “Committee of the Eight”. During the crucial 10 year period after the signing of the ’96 agreement, this committee was chaired by Indonesia. Libya is an influential member of the committee simply because it brokered the much-earlier 1976 peace agreement.

Last year, the OIC sent a senior adviser to its Secretary-General to Mindanao on a fact-finding mission to find out what went wrong with the agreement. During several forums and meetings he held with civil society groups, he pointedly told his audience to be candid and frank with their views and to relay those views to him directly. I took that to mean that the Secretary-General’s office suspected the Committee of the Eight was sanitizing its previous reports to the OIC about the status of the agreement to the OIC by downplaying serious problems or disagreements over its implementation. I still recall a statement by the Libyan Ambassador a few years back to the effect that there are no such problems with the agreement. He said this even as widespread fighting broke out between the MNLF and AFP, on a scale not seen since the 1970s.

True enough, the subsequent report of the Office of the Secretary-General itself, as opposed to the Committee of the Eight, was blunt in its assessment. There was none of the sugar-coating of or silence over serious problems or the glowing praises for the implementation of the agreement that was typical of statements coming from the Libyan or Indonesian missions here in the Philippines. A quote from the Secretary-General’s report makes one wonder if the current conditions of Moros would exist if the problems in the implementation of the agreement were not that serious:

“Muslims in southern Philippines, whose population is estimated at 8 to 10 million, are still living under deteriorating political, economic, and social conditions, which are evident in the extreme backwardness and acute lack of educational and health services. These conditions are in fact due to the central government’s control of natural resources in the Muslim areas, in addition to the political marginalization of Muslims that is manifest in the absence of fair representation in government and judiciary posts. Moreover, military operations have continued, leading to the displacement of more and more Muslims from their villages and towns on top of the continued demographic reengineering that has encouraged the migration of non-Muslims to the south in order to turn the Muslims there into the minority.”

(Part II next week - The Mediator’s Accountability)