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OpEd 4-Yolanda O. Stern

A Chance at Greatness       
Friday, 04 April 2008 
By Amb. Yolanda Ortega Stern

The “Mindanao Factor” has hounded would-be conquistadores and colonizers as well as national and local governments in the Philippines for centuries. Every president in my lifetime has contended with it. Anyone growing up in the Philippine South particularly in Sulu, Tawi Tawi, Zamboanga, and Basilan knew the familiar Christian refrain that went – “The only good Moro is a dead Moro.” It seemed that all policy, personal as well as conventional led to this end and all means were considered justified. It’s true that Moslems, Lumads and Christians co-existed for long periods of time in-between in the absence of conflict. But conflict re-visited us as if there was a re-visiting forces agreement that needed to be enforced from time to time. And so as I write, it is back again, and has stayed for quite sometime

What is to be done so that the “Mindanao Factor” ceases to become the Conflict du Jour? If all the Moslems left will the Philippines be peaceful? As a solution, this is not an option or even an experiment for consideration. Do we know what they want? Have we been listening closely? Have we really tried to work towards lasting solutions? In the compromise solution to achieve peace through ARMM, has the Philippine Government given careful study to the meaning of autonomy? Does ARMM have autonomy?  Has the government made affirmative action mandatory in a territory where Christians outnumber Moslems or is it perpetuating an indispensable conflict to justify political and military interdictions? Have all government been under the mercy of special interest that it does not dare to think out of the box to bring this sad situation to and end? Can it even be done?
Under President Arroyo, major bills that will have long lasting impact have been passed. But she is in danger of leaving a legacy that will be no different from her predecessors in one area – a troubled Mindanao. After the signing of the 1996 Peace Agreement, it is worth remembering that both President Fidel V. Ramos and the MNLF Chairman Prof Nur P. Misuari, when asked what they would like to be remembered for both replied, “As a Peace Maker”. And it is certain that President Arroyo will want the same. Will the country let her?

There is no question that even an ordinary citizen often aspires to a higher calling. Many politicians as well as career military men and women want to be known for some noble deed towards their fellowmen judging by how glad they feel by their humanitaran deeds. Many from opposite sides have not found killing to be the best cure for illness, poverty or illiteracy. And no one wants to live among terrorists and their surprise attacks, not even terrorists themselves.

But can a President wish peace or demand peace, or even legislate  peace on her own? Even the cessation of conflict does not guarantee peace if all the other factors are left simmering in the pot unattended. The President can do a lot as the Commander in Chief of the AFP and as the COO of the bicameral legislature. Her voice and her signature is very powerful. Her influence cannot be underestimated. The future of the country rests on her government’s shoulders.  But has the Philippines made it difficult for any president to solve the Mindanao Factor, hence, the recurrence? Who has stakes in a Mindanao Conflict? Is the country clear on the President’s goals? Can the people of Mindanao hear what Manila is saying and vice versa?

ARMM is limited to only 9 Regions and leaves out the Lumads and presumes as outsiders the Christians within those territories. That is a source of conflict. ARRM does not enjoy full autonomy in the real definition of the word because it does not enjoy  fiscal autonomy. That is a source of conflict. The problem of the Moslems is not that they need independence, but that they need legitimacy. They want the government to recognize that Islam is their religion and that for them  it is a way of life, inseparable as day and night, and that they are one with God 24/7 and not just on Sundays. The problem of the Moslems is not that they want to invade and capture territories and kill people or drive them out,  it is that their territories were taken from them and that an estimated close to 200,000 illegal aliens are in their midst.  The problem of the Moslems is not that they need more, it is that the welfare of their people have been ignored, neglected, and buried in the past. The problem of the Moslem is not that they are massing and shouting out in protest, it is that they have lost their voice, their songs, their hope for self determination. And the problem of the Moslem bureaucrats is not that they are incompetent, It is that their Moslem communities have lost faith and trust in them because they represent government  and not their own autonomous authority and traditions. The problem of the madrasas, is not that they have been preaching violence, it is that until last year, they have not been given accreditation and so therefore could only teach the oral Koran. It  is in this hapless confusion that the men, the youth,  turn to armed rebellion to fill the gap left by joblessness, hopelessness, and discrimination.

What will we have the President do?

A Bangsamoro Autonomous Region rather than ARMM will be better for the long term.  The territory can establish diplomatic and economic ties with OIC member states. To the extent that the traditions of the territory can be utilized, educational and cultural exchanges should be encouraged within the same network. Domestic tourism should be promoted to the full extent possible, to promote better intra-cultural understanding . Autonomy will help make them masters of their fate not incongruent with their culture, traditions and mores.

A bill for the Sibutu Straits now in the Lower House,  should be declared a priority bill by the President. It will give the Coast Guard as well as the Philippine Navy the right to flag down and board any of the 58 tankers that ply the straits daily. A small environmental tax should be levied on all tankers proceeding through the passage. Twenty percent of the revenue  should be utilized  to keep that coastal environment a no dump zone and to give the Philippine Navy and Coast Guard better tools with which  to guard the coastal borders from illegal dumping, illegal poachers, illegal immigrants, and smugglers.

There is an ARSSA (Autonomous Region of  Sulu Sultanate Act ) bill also pending in Congress.  The President can declare this a priority bill or come up with a similar arrangement to put TawiTawi, Sulu and Basilan under a separate Chief Operating Officer or governor. The current arrangement under ARMM is not working. Teachers and other employees in these territories are too far from Cotabato, the administrative office. Imagine the poor teacher from the outskirts of Jolo who has to catch a bus, and then go by ferry to Zamboanga, then a catch plane to Cotabato.  For some it takes an even more twisted path.  In the unfortunate case of the teachers who had not been paid, none of them could afford to make the trip rf pay for accommodations once there.  The Sulu Region can be a subdivision of  the  Bangsamoro Autonomous Region,  accessible to the many islands that dot the Sulu Archipelago.

The Sultans of Maguindanao and Sulu,  each vying for a legitimate place under the sun, should work together to strengthen their historic positions and be the spiritual and cultural pillars of their communities. They should take the responsibility for leading the lost youth back into their folds and rekindle in them the pride of their forefathers. The problem with the Moslem youth is not that they are lazy, it is that they are alienated from their elders and disillusioned by their fate, and they have come to reject a life with no light at the end of the tunnel. Most of them can rap but have no knowledge of their own lullabies. Most of them know break-dance but are not seduced by the beauty of pangalay. They are lost in their own middle- earth, strangers to the Koran. The Sultanates should organize weekend theatres and bring back the rituals of music and dance to return the disaffected youth to their prideful places.
The Sultanate of Sulu should forge a free trade agreement with Sabah and Brunei, and strengthen their historic cultural foundations to spur the exchange of trade goods and supplies to the islands. A Trading Post can be established in Tawi-Tawi, Jolo and Basilan for this purpose and a Coast Gaurd station be put in place for documents checks on the cargo vessels.

The Philippine Government should enter exploratory talks with the various representatives of the Sulu Archipelago about the US presence in their islands. The problem with the US military is not that they are hated there, it is that the Moslems of Sulu  are suspicious of their presence and view them as the legitimate partners in a historical war to wipe them out. The people of Sulu can be convinced that a US base on one of the islands is a better alternative to the unexplained dug-ins along their coastlines. They want transparency,  then they will work towards rooting their communities of unwanted violence. It is still a small fact that the old  Sulu would prefer a democracy under American Rule to that of imperial Manila and if a vote were taken today, the outcome may surprise even the people themselves.

There will be resistance at first. There always is the first time. But town hall meetings to explain the change can clear suspicions and rumors. Gov. Ampatuan will understand the wisdom of letting the Tausug manage the Sulu Archipelago. Prof. Nur Misuari, and the MNLF, proponent s of a united and autonomous  Bangsamoro that recognizes the existence of the Lumads and Christians, can be convinced of the wisdom of having ARSSA or something similar. The leadership of the MILF will be satisfied with the gift of the right  to self determination. The Lumads will have the freedom of choice and their identity. The Christians will see the folly in taking up arms against their Moslem neighbors. Peace and Economic empowerment in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region  will benefit all of Mindanao and undoubtedly  the entire Philippines.  The AFP can do the noble  job of keeping the Filipino safe within his own nation and his child tucked safely in bed at night.

Finally, the government cannot encourage or take part in rank treason within organizations or it will become an acceptable weapon of choice for a few disgruntled critics who have their own personal agendas for succession. The chain of command in a government as well as in any organized institution must be respected  in order to preserve order. The burden of peace and the burden of war need not be forced to the fork on the road and need no innocent lives put out to the pawnshop.

President Arroyo still has time,  and a chance at greatness. She can demand what is right for her country and for peace in Mindanao without the influence of false prophets or a shot fired in anger. She can dismantle what is not working and move forward towards  One Peace with the implementation of the 1996 Peace Agreement with the MNLF, One Bangsamoro Autonomous Region, One Country for all Filipinos with Lumads, Moslems and Christians . But until she leads the move forward, Mindanao will have  the MNLF and the MILF to guard the front and the back. The right to self determination cannot survive without supporting policy or fiscal autonomy.

What Next?       
Saturday, 05 April 2008 
By Amb. Yolanda Ortega Stern

Print media has been reporting about an impending rift within the MNLF.  The story of the Council of 15 who bolted, returned, and re-bolted, is an old story. They did it again last week in Pagadian. They re-ousted Chairman Nur Misuari  and installed Muslimin Sema in yet another bid to form their own “MNLF 2”.  Their grievances are old grievances and we have all read them. The men involved are known to all of their former associates, for they were once fighting shoulder to shoulder for the Moslems’ right to self determination.  Some fought in deeds, and some with words. No matter, their publicized goals are not too far from their former combatants, with one difference, some of them are now identified with government and indeed appear to have the support and encouragement of those in government.  That puts them under the suspicious net relegated to those that have moved up into government positions.

At the sidelines watching, is the MNLF, with its Chairman Prof Nur Misuari still in detention after seven years, without trial. The OIC recognizes him as the legitimate Chairman of the MNLF. His representatives at the Dakar Summit of Sovereigns  and Heads of States were the only recognized representatives. He was of course invited, as he was for the Jeddah meeting, but he was not allowed travel papers by the court. The position of the MNLF today has not changed much. Even from detention, Chairman Misuari continues the same struggle to move further and forward,  the Moslems struggle for self determination, by demanding the full implementation of the 1996 Peace Agreement. The OIC has called for the same.  Despite misrepresentation or lack of representation in print media, the MNLF has grown in numbers, the women having joined in greater numbers for many initiatives and Lumads and Christians playing an ever greater role in determining the future. Then there is the MILF, the former MNLF brothers who are today forging a hardline quest for a separate territory outside of the constitution. The late Chairman, Hashim Salamat told Prof Misuari in 1996 after he signed the Peace Agreement that he “would go to my death fighting for a separate territory, and you, Brother Nur,  can continue with your struggle for autonomy and maybe one of us will get something for all of us”.

The MILF has learned vicariously from the MNLF experience. They will not make the same mistake of trusting that promises made will be promises kept. They will therefore not  sign a Peace Agreement within a constitutional framework, and the bicameral legislature will not allow it. The AFP, whose job it is to defend the constitution will be on standby to preserve it on the orders of the President.

The reunification of the MNLF and the MILF is being called for today, not only by the OIC, but by Libya, the Philippines and by some Moslem youth groups.  It has been forgotten that  a reunification of the two was considered an event to be feared as early as seven years ago. But today  it is the rifts within these organizations that are being used to justify the internal coups, the non implementation of projects, even the war on terror. “They are just all fighting among themselves, how can we make progress?”

From a military standpoint, the reunification of the MNLF and the MILF will make for a Mindanao Theatre of  Dreams.  The combined forces of the two will make for a formidable battle among almost equals, and much to the delight of those who have stakes in the Mindanao Conflict.  The battle will be long and prolonged, with hundreds of casualties, and many of the youth joining in.

But asking the MNLF and the MILF to unite is like asking the political parties of the Philippines to unite.  Who will lay down the rules for unification, and on what basis will the leader be chosen and by whom?  And how do you marry conflicting agendas? And what acronym will satisfy? Will it be MINLF? MNLF-MILF ?  New MN-MI-LF? How will they agree to a separate peace and agree to territories that overlap? Can brothers at heart turn against each other for pieces of the same pie? Will they fall for this unity trap and allow themselves to become fall guys for their own troubled territories?  Or should they on their own, sit down and agree to unify around a strategic and mutual agenda and then go forth without conflict among them? The answer lies in what is happening today.

Mindanao Moslems understand the meaning of war but have very little experience with peace, much less two separate peace. There were the old wars against the MNLF; against the MILF;  then the current  war against the Abbu Sayyef;  the Jemayah Islamiya, Bojinka, etc.  There is even a war against poverty! But still almost 80% of Sulu does not have sanitary toilets. The terrorists are still in hiding. Some of them have even been killed more than once. The allegations of “Divide and Conquer” have been labeled at every administration since the Spanish occupation. The burning of Jolo by the Spaniards and Battle of Bud Dajo and Bud Bagsak  still haunt current events. But if we live by a cipher that seeks revenge for the past, then we our future is doomed to repeat the same mistakes.

Why not leave the internal strifes  alone?  Why not free Misuari and test the waters on renewed ground?  Why not leave the two organizations and their internal struggles to be sorted among them?  The government must stay its course and take the role of Leader in the search for solutions.  It must take the initiative to think out of the box because it is ahead of other countries. It cannot afford to take sides in personal rivalries among internal factions. It must accord the same respect it expects for itself. It must study all proposals on the table and seek to legislatively end conflict and give the Moslems their just desserts or separate them into their own territories without war. To live and let live.

The Philippine Solution to the Mindanao problem will be referred to by nations who are only now beginning to confront the same problems in their own backyards, just as the outcomes in Timor, Bosnia, and the Balkans are being evaluated by many.  We owe this to our great nation and to the great people that inhabit our archipelago.