BY JESS DUREZA
WHEN then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo took over from President Joseph Estrada in 2001, she immediately reversed the Erap all-out war policy and enunciated the policy of all-out peace and the primacy of the peace process.
Among the first things PGMA did upon assumption right after Erap left Malacañang was to issue a Letter of Instruction which laid down the framework of the pursuit of peace through negotiated settlement. It was to pick up from where President Fidel Ramos left off. I was her first chief negotiator to put back on track FVR’s peace initiatives with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
I cannot forget that day in 2001 when I first entered an MILF-controlled territory somewhere in the boundary of Maguindanao and North Cotabato.
Immediately after I got the marching orders from PGMA to “re-start” the peace talks, I brought relief assistance to thousands of evacuees, mostly MILF families.
It was also to give me “cover” for my secret, exploratory, informal face-to-face meeting with an emissary of then MILF chairman Hashim Salamat.
I remember meeting him. He was wearing a ball cap inside a dark, small hut with all windows shut. I can’t recognize him if I meet him again.
The late Ustadz Salamat’s favorite nephew, the late businessman Ebrahim “Toto” Paglas, my close friend, brokered the icebreaker.
Former Armed Forces chief of staff, Gen. Hermogenes “Jun” Esperon Jr., then a colonel and brigade commander in North Cotabato, refused to let me go alone and volunteered to escort me but he had to shed his military uniform to disguise as my civilian companion in a hostile territory.
The risk paid off. In a few weeks, then Office of the Presidential Assistant on the Peace Process (OPAPP) secretary Eduardo Ermita shook hands with MILF’s Kagi Murad in Kuala Lumpur, signaling the revival of the peace talks.
After three months, I signed in June 2001 in Tripoli, Libya as chief negotiator the landmark Agreement for Peace that served as the framework and roadmap in the subsequent conduct of peace negotiations.
By the way, it was in that Tripoli trip when I met face to face with the late strongman Moammar Khadafi in his desert tent in Sirte. (Of course, with his pet elephants trucked in by container vans in the background serving as fascinating props.)
One poignant event during my work in the Arroyo government was what happened during a Malacañang high-level, closed door, command conference of the security sector.
One Army general was a bit candid about his reservations on a ceasefire mechanism with the MILF, which we discussed. He was describing it as unfairly tying the hands of the soldiers while they fought the rebels.
I sensed it was a common sentiment among the uniformed participants. To cut him off, an exasperated high official snapped a question: “Tell me honestly, General. Can you and the Armed Forces decisively and militarily defeat the MILF? If your answer is in the affirmative, there’s no more need for this meeting!”
The Army general did not answer. No one in the room stirred.
After a while of silence, the high official merely said: “I hear none. The answer is clear. Let us now proceed.”
I pondered for a while on the significance of what took place. Many years passed and up to this day, that episode kept coming back. It was a reality check. It simply taught me that force of arms does not and cannot extinguish the Bangsamoro grievances; that the root causes of rebellion must be addressed; that a negotiated settlement is the way forward.
WHY TALK PEACE?
The inevitable question that a friend asked was: Why hold peace talks, in the first place? Well, here are a few of my thoughts:
First, the government recognizes that the rebel group has valid grievances that must be addressed and redressed.
Second, the government being on a high moral ground must be ready to grant concessions to address those grievances.
Third, improving the lives of the affected constituencies, especially those deprived, is key.
Fourth, the government cannot decisively defeat the organized rebel group in armed combat without great social cost to the general population.
Fifth, the peace engagement with mainstream rebels who are willing to negotiate can isolate the extremists and the radicals.
Sixth, the government, due to its superiority, can win battles but it cannot win the war unless it wins the hearts and minds of those who had suffered injustices and exclusion.
Seventh, social cohesion or understanding among diverse groups in Mindanao and their acceptance of their respective diversities and differences help bring about peace.
Lastly, peace through a negotiated settlement, although difficult than conveniently and easily pulling the triggers of war, is more desirable, durable and sustainable.
TASK NOT EASY
The work for a negotiated peace settlement is not the proverbial “walk in the park.” Accommodating the aspirations of those who have already forsaken normal processes of redress and to be done by the government that must adhere to those processes (like the Philippine Constitution that the rebels disavow and reject) is not an easy task.
If crafting an agreement is already that difficult, how much more if we talk about implementation?
Indeed, the most crucial is how to implement what has been signed and to meet the high expectations of all.
I’ve seen it up close with the 1996 peace agreement with Nur Misuari’s Moro National Liberation Front that up to this day is still troubled by implementation issues.
In the case of the present agreement with the MILF, we are still not there. As of today, we are still awaiting the release by Malacañang of the final draft of a bill that if passed by Congress can get us going.
There’s still a long road ahead, I told a friend. He handed me a bottle of San Mig lite as if satisfied with what I said.
It was only then that I realized I was ready for another bottle./PN