Malang: We might end up becoming the Darfur of southeast Asia
(ANC's Tony Velasquez interviewed on August 18, Zainudin Malang, executive director of the Bangsamoro Center for Law and Policy, on the clashes that have erupted in parts of Mindanao and on the prospects for peace in the south. Malang has been a close observer of the peace process with Muslim separatists.)
Q. What was your expectation after the signing of the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD) in Malaysia, had it pushed through?
A. I was expecting optimism on the ground, not what we are seeing here, not what we saw today. I was expecting the complete opposite after they had signed the MOA.
Q. Are these recent clashes in North Cotabato and Lanao del Norte an offshoot of the failure to sign the MOA-AD?
A. I cannot help but arrive at that conclusion. You know, there are only two ways to resolve the conflict: either through military means or through negotiations. And apparently, after the cancellation of the signing of the MOA, the product of a dozen years of long and hard bargaining on both sides, perhaps, there are armed groups who feel it will already be hard to resolve the conflict by way of negotiations.
Q. Do you think the government and military should have anticipated that this would be the backlash from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF)?
A. I’m sure they’ve always been aware of the possibility of this happening. This situation is not new to them.
Q. Does it help the MILF if they undertake this kind of hostilities granted that they may have been frustrated?
A. I have to go back to the sentiments on the ground, both civil society as well as sentiments of people within the MILF as well as the other revolutionary movement, the MNLF. You have to bear in mind that the Mindanao peace process is three decades old. This started in 1976. The feeling on the ground is that, they had this 1976 Tripoli agreement, there was a 1996 peace agreement, but where did these end up? It ended up in failed implementation. When the MILF leadership undertook negotiations with the government, many in their ranks were already asking: why negotiate with the government when all the past peace agreements have never been implemented? So there’s always been skepticism among the [MILF] ranks in the peace process. And then at each stage of the peace process, each stage of the exploratory talks and formal talks, there has always been good results that both the MILF and government could present to their respective constituencies. But after all of those hard bargaining, those long years of negotiations, after they arrived at an agreement on how to resolve the conflict, suddenly, the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD) was blocked. So the skepticism that was present before is alive again. I think that’s what we’re seeing now.
Q. Were you privy to the details of the MOA-AD that was to be signed in KL?
A. There were several instances when I had attended very public forums where members of the GRP [government of the Republic of the Philippines] as well as members of the MILF gave the audience updates on what was going on.
Q. What about the contents of the draft MOA-AD?
A. We were given updates on what were the pending issues they discussed, they had resolved. My friends in the Mindanao People’s Caucus, for instance, organized several of these forums in Davao City , in Marawi City , and these very public consultations. And I also recalled that every time that the GRP and the MILF panels are about to meet, they always announce, they make a public announcement that we are about to meet.
Q. I guess the people back then should have already known about the more contentious issues such as the resource sharing agreement with the GRP-MILF, the inclusion of 700 barangays in an expanded Bangsamoro homeland. All of these were made public.
A. Some of these were made public. The forums I attended, these were staggered. They occurred over time. So depending on what the status of the negotiations at that time, that was what was divulged.
Q. Sen. Mar Roxas and Frank Drilon actually have an initialed copy of the MOA-AD, and they’re taking exceptions to several provisions there. For example, that the Bangsamoro Juridical Entity can now enter into separate treaties with foreign governments. And now, they’re saying that that’s totally unheard of for an autonomous homeland, to have that kind of sovereign power. Was that ever included in the consultations?
A. I think they refer not to treaties or all kinds of treaties. They referring to economic treaties, and this is not entirely unheard of. This is the kind of arrangement that they have in Belgium . For example, the Flemish region in Belgium is allowed to set up trade missions or enter into economic treaties with other countries.
Q. Like Quebec in Canada .
A. Yes, so let us bear in mind that the Philippines is not the only one that has an internal conflict in the whole world. So maybe we should learn at how this kind of problem has been tackled in other parts of the world. So I think that’s what the GRP and the MILF panels have borne in mind. And if I’m not mistaken, they’ve also mentioned Northern Ireland , for example, when it comes to a need to reexamine the Constitutional framework to resolve the conflict.
Q. It’s good you mentioned the Flemish territory in Belgium . But doesn’t it cause a lot of tension within Belgium ?
A. The tension that I’ve heard in Belgium is actually being managed by these sort of accommodations or arrangements. Because the Waloon region [of Belgium] can always tell the Flemish, why go for separation when you already enjoying these sovereign privileges? And I guess that’s what both the GRP and MILF panels had in mind when they agreed on this MOA-AD. I suppose what they were thinking was that, there would be no use, for now, to secede because all of these genuine...sort of tools would now be afforded or accorded to you rather than paper autonomy.
Q. But look at what’s happening now, when you see the MILF acting in a belligerent way, just because they’re frustrated, ,maybe this, to them, hopefully a hiccup in the peace talks, and then they finally give up all hope and resort to violence again. What does it say about giving a group like this the kind of powers that are contained in a MOA-AD? Isn’t it dangerous?
A. I will be frank with you. We ourselves are finding it hard to pacify these armed forces. We need to appeal for them to hold back, all the armed groups because, as they were saying, ‘We thought you said we should give negotiations a chance. We’ve been talking already for 12 years. We’ve already faced two all-out offensives already and then it ends up nowhere.’ We in civil society are finding it hard to pacify these armed groups. And I’m not just talking about the MILF, I’m also talking about the AFP. Our work is made much harder when we hear about much-publicized statements from our political leaders who say, if the MOA-AD is signed, there will be bloodshed, which we find completely illogical. Because what they’re saying is, if there’s a peace agreement, there won’t be peace. There will not be any peace. Whereas we are saying, if there’s a peace agreement, there will be peace.
Q. Let me play devil’s advocate. If you say it’s hard to pacify these groups, what we’ve seen is it’s the MILF that has been provoking these all-out wars. So it’s the MILF that is more difficult to restrain than the AFP.
A. I don’t want to take sides. I just want to say that when it comes to military solutions…we hear so many people say now, it’s time to go all out against the MILF. What I want to remind everyone is that every time we adopt a military solution, it never works. Remember that in the 1970s, we were under martial law, and President Marcos, with all the resources and powers he had in his hand, could not crush a hastily organized rebel army with very little training, with no battlefield experience, with very minimal equipment. And the military went against them during martial law. Here we are, three decades later, they are far more experienced, they have more equipment, what makes us think that they cannot put up a fight? What I’m afraid of is, they fought for two weeks in North Cotabato , we already have 160,000 internally-displaced refugees, extrapolate then. Let’s assume they continue fighting for two or three months. How many thousands or millions of refugees will we have? Remember, in year 2000, we had one million internally-displaced people, and these were World Bank and government figures. In comparison, Bosnia only had 600,000, East Timor only had 300,000. What I’m trying to say is, if we do not deescalate the situation, we might end up becoming the Darfur [in Sudan] of southeast Asia.
Q. Right now, we have a Coordinating Committee on the Cessation of Hostilities (CCCH). So far, we haven’t heard from it. If that committee does its job, then it should defuse the situation.
A. I remember one instance when I talked to a member of the CCCH. This was about Cotabato. This was when a Civilian Volunteer Organization and the MILF were fighting. The MILF were farmers in that area; the CVO members were also farmers in the barangay. There was fighting and it was reported to the Joint Ceasefire Committee. The committee came in and it was told by the CVOs, “We don’t recognize any captain. We don’t recognize any ceasefire committee.” So, the problem is, the public in Manila who don’t know any better, who are not immersed on the ground, who don’t know what’s happening, it’s very easy for them to be manipulated. It’s very easy for public opinion to be manipulated nowadays. Because we know that in times of war, the first casualty is truth. I would advise our friends in media to get a direct line to the CCCH so we will know what’s really happening. Let’s not rely…our sources of information should not depend on groups that are taking advantage of the conflict. We have so many groups who feel that their interests, whether economic or political, will be affected negatively by the peace process. I’ve always said the reason why there’s still no signing of a peace agreement is that….I’ve always said that if the government panel, as well as the MILF panel were left on their own to decide if they should sign the agreement, they would have done that two years ago. They just couldn’t sign it because they’re afraid. There are powerful economic and political forces who genuinely feel that their interests, political and economic may be adversely affected by the Mindanao peace process. Because we are talking here of returning the ancestral domain of the Moros themselves. Now, let’s ask ourselves: who are enjoying now the fruits of these ancestral domain? Who owns the mineral rights? Who has tens of thousands of hectares per DENR records in Mindanao ? How would you think they feel, now that the government is about to return the ancestral domain back to the Moros?
Q. But were they consulted in the first place?
A. If they had been consulted, what do you think they would say? Our friends in Zamboanga are complaining, they’re saying they were not consulted. But later, they said, they were. And they’ve said no. Apparently, what they mean by consultation is, to them, they are consulted if the government takes their position. In layman’s term, when we ask, what do you think? It doesn’t necessarily mean that I would have to adopt your position. But to them, they say that since they have already expressed their views in a public forum, albeit informally, their position is, the government should adopt their position. The problem is, if you’re in the GRP or MILF panel, if you try to accommodate everyone’s interest into this agreement, without asking anyone to make sacrifices or compromises, we will never arrive at any peace agreement. And what we saw today, it will continue to grow.
Q. How can this be resolved? The President has already ordered an all-out offensive. The military says it’s not going to stop because it’s already got the upper hand. Even local officials say it’s got to stop now. When do you think it’s going to stop?
A. I myself am hoping everything dies down, everbody calms down. How is it going to stop? There has to be…we have to show to everyone that there is a big constituency for peace. As of now, what’s being given air space and print space are the anti-MOA and the MILF. And both of them are either saying, if there’s no MOA, there’s going to be war. Or if there’s MOA, there’s going to be war. Right? Perhaps, it’s about time, the silent majority, if there is really a silent majority in support of the peace process, or the peaceful resolution of the conflict, maybe now is the time, now more than ever is the time for us to come out and say to everyone, say to these groups, say to those who would rather resolve the conflict by armed means, ‘Wait, there’s a big constituency in support of a peaceful resolution of whatever grievances, Bangsamoro grievances you have there.'