Envoys queuing up to meet MILF head

It didn’t take too long for President Aquino’s meeting with Moro Islamic Liberation Front chieftain Murad Ebrahim in Tokyo—originally intended as a dramatic achievement for the State of the Nation speech—to unravel as one of his biggest blunders so far. In an insult to the President, as it ignored totally his “historic” meet last August 5 with Murad, the MILF ended the talks August 29, a day before its scheduled end, practically with a walkout.

The fallout from Aquino’s misstep had started earlier. Making Aquino’s meeting with the rebel chief as an excuse, the Japanese ambassador to the Philippines Toshinao Urabe, with his political affairs minister and other ranking embassy officials, trooped on Aug. 18  to the MILF headquarters in Maguindanao to meet  with Murad and other central committee members.

It was actually former US Ambassador Kristie Kenney who broke protocol to be the first ambassador to meet, in February 2008, with the head of an organization challenging the Philippine territory. However, the US Embassy apologetically explained to the government then that the meeting was purely a tactical move on their part, to get the MILF’s commitment not to attack or harass US personnel who were scheduled to undertake the US-Philippines Balikatan military exercises in Mindanao, including Basilan and Sulu.

The Japanese ambassador’s meeting with Murad however is entirely different, and quite inappropriate, as it opens the diplomatic floodgates for the MILF to move closer to being recognized as a legitimate state—that is, a representative of a particular population within a defined territory—by the international community. When he met with Murad, Aquino himself had seemed clueless to the fact that the very existence of the MILF is a challenge to the Philippine Republic, considering that a basic definition of a state is that it is the only organization with the legitimate monopoly of violence in its defined territory.

Diplomatic sources claim that ambassadors of other nations are queuing up to meet with Murad, among them the other members of the so-called International Contact group—Saudi Arabia, Turkey, United Kingdom.  The ambassadors of Malaysia, Indonesia and the European Union have reportedly asked for a meeting with the MILF chief.

There is a certain dynamic operating here in the diplomatic community. Especially after the Japanese envoy’s meet; an ambassador wouldn’t want to be called to task by his home office and be asked: Why couldn’t you get to meet the MILF chief, as the Japanese did? After all, an ambassador’s “prime directive” is to ensure the safety of his country’s citizens. A meeting with the head of the MILF—which is known to have an influence even among Moro bandits and Abu Sayyaf stragglers—would be a major move to secure its citizens’ safety in the country. Thus the queuing now to meet Murad.

For our nation though, the result of this dynamic—triggered by President Aquino’s meeting with Murad—is a drastic weakening of the Philippine government’s negotiating stance, as the MILF would soon be claiming that the international community is fast recognizing it as a legitimate organization seeking self-determination for its “Moro nation.”

For the sake of the Republic’s integrity, Mr. Aquino should accept that he made a mistake, and rush to repair the damage done. I suggest the following steps.

First, fire negotiator Marivic Leonen. This will send the message to the MILF that it can no longer expect the kind of confused and amateurish advice and moves by its negotiators. Leonen unfortunately doesn’t know the kind of job he is into, and I doubt if he even consults with Peace Process Adviser Teresita Deles who at least had many years of experience in negotiating with insurgents. Right after the Aquino-Murad meeting, Leonen practically became the MILF’s spokesman by explaining its demand for a “substate.”  However, he later threw a cheap shot at the MILF by saying in the very first paragraph of his closing statements in the talks that the government “carried a check of P5 million” for an MILF project—implying that the insurgent group could be made cooperative with a P5-million “donation.”

Second, appoint a former military man to head the negotiating team. The experience of all peace talks with Philippine insurgencies shows that military men are in a better position to talk peace with insurgents, probably since both know how ugly death is in the battlefield. An armed rebel also often respects only another warrior.

More importantly, for the stability of our country, having a military man as the chief negotiator with the MILF will assuage the increasing fears of our Armed Forces that their commander in chief seems to have been giving in, and will give in, too much to a rebel organization group that has killed at least a thousand of our soldiers.

Third, Mr. Aquino should convene and seek advice from a high-level, nonpartisan Council of State, which should also reach a consensus on how to deal with the MILF. The wisdom of former President Fidel Ramos, Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile, the legal luminary Estelito Mendoza, former peace process adviser Eduardo Ermita—who have vast, direct experience in negotiating with insurgents—are just there to be tapped.

After all, the MILF talks are of crucial importance to the nation. We don’t have to go into abstruse economic discussions to see that one of the biggest reasons why we have remained poor. Our economic growth has been impeded, first, by the political instability created by our penchant for military-backed middle-class mobilizations we call “people power,” and second, because of the communist and Moro insurgencies.