An Impossible Peace?

Mindanao’s Bangsamoro Ancestral Domain Plan Pits History Against Reality

THE best laid plans of mujaheedins and presidential men can fall apart, like when the Supreme Court (SC) stopped the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD) that was tortuously crafted by the Philippine and Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) negotiators from being signed just a day before the scheduled event on August 5 in Kuala Lumpur. The temporary restraining order (TRO) initiated by the local governments of Zamboanga and Iligan cities and North Cotabato vice-governor Manny Piñol threw into a tailspin the signing ceremony, which was to be witnessed by some 200 diplomats and personalities including Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Alberto Romulo and US Ambassador Kristie Kenney.

Zamboanga petitioned the SC to compel full public disclosure of the MOA-AD, little of whose complex provisions had been revealed officially by the national government. The city government, through Congressman Erbie Fabian, who filed the case, also sought the exclusion of several local barangays from the contemplated expanded autonomous region area. The final draft of the MOA published by the national media shows that six island barangays of the city are classified for inclusion through a plebiscite while some 20 others would be “special intervention areas”, entitling them to development assistance from the autonomous regional government, or the so-called Bangsamoro Juridical Entity (BJE). Sometime in the distant future – not earlier than 25 years hence, the second-category villages may also vote for inclusion in the autonomous region.

In his talk at the Ateneo de Zamboanga University last July 29, Philippine negotiating panel vice-chairman Rudy Rodil said over 700 barangays were prioritized to vote in a plebiscite for inclusion under the BJE on the basis of their being identified as ancestral lands of the Bangsamoros. Perplexingly, though, the MOA’s listing shows that certain barangays in Zamboanga, like Rio Hondo, Mariki and Arena Blanco, with predominant Muslim population today and since their beginnings are not in the priority list.

The negotiating panels’ refusal to reveal the MOA’s details to prevent resistance or opposition obviously backfired when the SC issued the TRO.

“I am inclined to sympathize with those who have very serious apprehensions and see no wisdom in the following dimensions re the MOA-AD: (a) why a lack of previous consultation of the communities affected; (b) why so many Christian-dominated barangays should be listed for possible referendum in Categories A and B (even if 25 years from now),” Cotabato Archbishop Orlando Quevedo said. The archbishop has been a staunch and vocal supporter of the 10 years-long peace process and had previously urged the government to extend liberal terms to the MILF.

Mindanews reported that “the 11-page MOA has two annexes — an 18-page listing of 735 areas that will go through a plebiscite within one year from the MOA signing whether or not they want to be part of the proposed Bangsamoro Juridical Entity (BJE) and 35-page listing of 1,459 areas – subject to further negotiations – that will serve as “special intervention areas” that will go through a plebiscite on ‘not earlier than 25 years’ from the signing of the Comprehensive Compact or at the earliest around 2034 if the compact is completed as envisioned by November 2009, whether or not they want to be included in the proposed BJE – and two maps.”

Presidential Peace Adviser Ret. Gen. Hermogenes Esperon, meeting with Mindanao’s media in Davao four days after the TRO’s issuance, tried to calm down rising apprehension and anger over the deal, to which both panels had affix their initials. He said a long legislative process is required – to which the MILF has agreed – to implement the accord and targeted villages not yet within the existing Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) may still opt to stay out by a negative vote in the plebiscite. He said the envisioned concept of a “state within the State” will also require Constitutional amendments, attempts for which have encountered repeated rejection by voters in the past.

Aside from the spreading opposition to annexation by the BJE, fears have also been raised that the deal will permit the subsequent carving of an independent Islamic state in Mindanao. This is because under the proposed accord ancestral lands are considered to be outside of public domain and the BJE will be empowered to enter directly into economic treaties with other countries and to assume an observer status in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
An international business newspaper charged that President Arroyo’s peace plan by allowing a fully segregated autonomous state to operate in Mindanao will enable terrorists to form strongholds within the boundaries of such a region. When that happens, it warned, the security situation in the whole of Southeast Asia will deteriorate. It feared that the gains made by the US military in dampening terrorism in Mindanao through Balikatan trainings of Filipino soldiers since 2001 will be wiped out.

Oppositors to the MOA-AD will present their oral arguments before the SC on August 15. The SC may decide to turn the TRO into a permanent order if it sees any of its contents to be violative of the Constitution, a human rights lawyer.

The Mindanao Peaceweavers, a network of peace-building civil society groups, has appealed for wider public consultations on the issues; it also prevailed upon an enraged and disappointed MILF to restrain its forces from engaging in hostile action. But since then the Bangsamoro rebels have occupied at least six barangays in Central Mindanao, forcing thounsands of families to evacuate and militias to fight back. As government troops move in slowly to retake the villages, the frontiers of peace in Mindanao seem to move back farther away as well.

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