Tuesday, September 9, 2008

What Price Peace

PerryScope by Perry Diaz

In her fervent desire to have peace in Mindanao, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo went to the extent of secretly forging an agreement that would virtually cede a huge portion of Philippine territory to the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). The treaty would have expanded the present Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) into a virtual state within a state replete with all the functions and authority of a sovereign and independent state.

But, in a twist of fate, the day before the signing of a Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD) last August 5, 2008 in Malaysia, the Supreme Court issued a temporary restraining order in response to several petitions claiming that the treaty was unconstitutional. What followed next was a tragedy of error that cost lives and property in Mindanao.

In the aftermath of the public uproar over the attempt to partition the country, Gloria decided to scrap the controversial MOA-AD. She also dissolved the government's peace panel negotiating with the MILF. Basically, it's back to square one for the peace process. And, worst, Mindanao is now in a virtual state of war or, to be more precise, a civil war between Muslim Filipinos and Christian Filipinos. In reaction, Mohaqher Iqbal, the MILF's chief peace negotiator declared, "The peace process is now in purgatory."

One might wonder if Gloria could have done better to achieve a lasting peace in Mindanao. In my opinion, yes! she could have done better to achieve peace without dividing the country and pitting the Muslims and Christians against each other, particularly in the ARMM region.

ARMM was established in 1989 through Republic Act 6734 pursuant to the 1987 constitution which mandated its creation. It consisted of the predominantly Muslim provinces of Basilan, Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao, Sulu, and Tawi-Tawi. ARMM is headed by an elected Regional Governor and has a unicameral Regional Legislative Assembly headed by a Speaker.

Although ARMM is not a perfectly "autonomous" body, there is much to be desired to truly fulfill the mandate of the law that created it. Like the government that begot it, ARMM is, to say the least, congenitally corrupt. The recent ARMM elections, while generally peaceful, was marred by anomalies and irregularities. The Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL) Foundation, which was accredited by the Commission on Elections (COMELEC), reported vote-buying and what it called "a culture of corruption."

What MOA-AD would have accomplished was anything but peace. As a matter of fact, it already has started the opposite -- war! For the first time in the past 30 years, the spectre of "jihad" -- holy war -- looms in the horizon. The snafu created by the Arroyo government has angered leaders from both sides of the conflict: the MILF militants were incensed because they considered the MOA-AD a "done deal" while Gloria and her henchmen were frustrated because they were stopped by the Supreme Court a day away from signing the agreement.

With 500,000 people already displaced by the war and increasing daily, peace has once again eluded us. All the work built up in the past three decades by government peace negotiators were blown to smithereens -- a setback that would take time and effort to rebuild.

Now, that the "peace process" is back to square one, it's time for the government to take a hard look at what it would really take to achieve peace. In my opinion, any peace formula that doesn't address poverty is doomed to fail. Religious differences are not the issue. They can be bridged. But as long as the people are mired in poverty, there will be no peace in Mindanao.

Mindanao, with its rich natural resources is being exploited by profiteers. The local population -- particularly the Muslims -- have been relegated to second-class citizenship. The Arroyo government is lacking in programs that would alleviate the plight of the Muslim poor. Giving the Muslims an "ancestral domain" is meaningless unless there is a sincere attempt -- not the usual lip service -- to develop the economy in Mindanao.

In its June 2008 survey, the Social Weather Stations (SWS) showed that self-rated poverty in Mindanao rose by nine points, from 59% to 68%. In comparison, Metro Manila rose from 44% to 51% and Balance Luzon from 48% to 53%. The hardest hit was the Visayas from 47% to 66%. However, poverty in the ARMM region was the highest in Mindanao.

The polls would tend to support Gloria's critics who have been saying all along that she neglected the Visayas and Mindanao, favoring the ruling elite based in Metro Manila. Indeed, the strongest supporters of federalism -- or partitioning -- come from the Visayas and Mindanao. Their complaints have been ignored by Gloria whose dole-out programs have caused more resentment among Visayans and Mindanaons.

Indeed, the price of peace in Mindanao is more than just giving the Muslim Filipinos their "ancestral domain." As long as the Muslim Filipinos are treated as second-class citizens and kept in perpetual bondage, peace will never blossom in Mindanao. The seeds of discontent have been sowed and have taken roots in Mindanao. The bottom line is: peace can only be achieved in Mindanao if the people saw real economic progress in the ARMM region. And if real progress was made, autonomy or statehood becomes moot. The Muslims would opt to remain in the Philippine republic