Early this year, some of President Arroyo’s key Mindanao allies met in Manila to discuss the prospects of an agreement with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) on the issue of ancestral homeland. It seemed then that the obstacles were surmountable and that a settlement was in sight.
They talked about some of the draft’s questionable legal provisions and how some constitutional experts had already vetted—and approved—them. They brainstormed about who could possibly raise hell in the process, and how to manage these persons. Then a businessman in the group popped a question: “So what is the [government] panel doing in terms of social marketing?”
Said a government consultant: “Of course, it suddenly dawned on us that we had not prepared for any information campaign.”
It would be simplistic to conclude that a mere failure in social marketing resulted in a botched GRP-MILF memorandum of agreement on ancestral domain (MOA-AD). However, in interviews with Newsbreak, public and private sector officials involved in the peace process conceded that it constituted a large part of the problem.
The government maintains that it had conducted “consultations” with local officials and other sectors that had a stake in the peace agreement. Press Secretary Jesus Dureza, who served as presidential adviser on the peace process from January 2006 to June this year, said that he made “deep consultations” with Mindanao lawmakers and local executives for three years.
Dureza: My Mistake
Government data show that consultations came in the form of forums and seminars on the history of the Moro conflict, on the 1996 peace agreement between the government and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), on ancestral domain, on the experiences of other countries that faced separatist problems, and on a common peace agenda, among other topics.
In 2005 and 2006, then government peace panel head Silvestre Afable Jr. and other panel members, and later Dureza, held executive sessions with members of the House of Representatives to brief them about the peace negotiations with the MILF, all in the hope of building a peace constituency from these institutions and selling the peace agenda of the President with the rebel group. (Click here for the List of GRP consultations)
In October 2005, Afable briefed select ambassadors on the status of the talks and assured them that they were “in the final lap” of the negotiations and were looking forward to signing a peace pact by the middle of 2006.
In all of this, the theme was President Arroyo’s goal of putting an end to the decades-old conflict with the MILF and to bring peace to Central Mindanao. But noticeably absent from these discussions were details of the negotiations that had been going on.
In February this year, when the government panel felt that they were on the road to signing the MOA-AD, Dureza proposed the mapping out of a comprehensive communication plan to “sell” the impending agreement to various sectors. “That was my mistake. It (communication plan) didn’t happen,” he told Newsbreak in an interview last September.
By then, a Cabinet reshuffle was underway and, months later, Dureza was plucked out from the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (OPAPP) to be named press secretary. Retired Armed Forces chief of staff Gen. Hermogenes Esperon Jr. then became the new presidential adviser on peace.
On August 4, Esperon flew to Kuala Lumpur for the signing of the MOA-AD the following day. The Supreme Court stopped him from doing so, and the rest was followed by an MILF offensive that saw the worst violence in Mindanao in recent years. The peace process collapsed.
Mindanao watchers were aghast at how sloppily this was handled. Conspiracy theorists insist that the apparently unconstitutional parts of the agreement were pushed by the President to kick off a charter change campaign aimed at extending her term beyond 2010. (Click here for Franklin Drilon’s commentary on GMA’s agenda on the MOA-AD.)
Comparisons were drawn between her and former President Fidel Ramos and how the latter engaged the MNLF in a protracted, initially unpopular, and difficult peace negotiations that nonetheless culminated in a historic peace agreement in 1996.
When he campaigned for peace during his term, Ramos was met with the same angry protests from Christian leaders and communities in Mindanao who, at one point, threw tomatoes at him.
Ramos became the main marketing man of the peace process, however, deftly using those protests to persuade the MNLF to be more flexible, because he repeatedly told them he was risking his neck for them.
“We were taken in and literally swept off our feet,” recalled then MNLF chair Nur Misuari in a speech before the Organization of Islamic Conference.
There are, however, significant differences between Ramos’s time and now.
To the MNLF, the Ramos government dangled an agency, not land, in the form of the Southern Philippines Council for Peace and Development. Ramos offered government posts and funds, including an assured seat for Misuari as governor of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, not barangays or villages as in the case of the MOA-AD with the MILF.
More importantly, the Ramos government put in place an information-cum-psywar campaign that combined select information leakages from the negotiating table with the mobilization of groups that created the much-needed pressure for both sides to settle amicably.
In the case of the Arroyo government, it entered into an agreement with the MILF early on in the negotiations for both sides to adopt a confidentiality protocol. The two panels agreed not to leak any information from the negotiations aside from those contained in a joint statement that they are to issue after every meeting in Kuala Lumpur.
“Confidentiality is an integral part of the peace process,” Prof. Rodolfo Rodil, member of the disbanded government peace panel, told Newsbreak. “As members of the peace panel, we were representing our own principals, and the strategies and tactics to achieve an agreement should not be revealed to the public.”
The government peace panel, for example, did not even feel compelled to reveal details of its talks to other officials of the OPAPP or to other Cabinet members outside the security cluster.
Burned by the past
The MILF was particularly sensitive about any leakage. Sometime in April 2005, when the two panels had moved a step forward in their talks on ancestral domain, one government peace panel member excitedly posted the joint statement on a Mindanao email group. The rebel group filed a formal complaint against that panel member, sending signals of how serious it was in making sure that the confidentiality protocol would be heeded. That panel member had to write a letter of apology to the MILF.
Beyond aversion to leakage was the aversion to public consultations—the kind that would give outsiders an idea of what was being negotiated on. On this, both panels agreed not just to avoid leakage of information but to avoid the kind of consultations that would compel them to reveal what was being talked about in Kuala Lumpur.
Yet, the negotiations still leaked. In late 2005, the opposition Daily Tribune exposed a draft agreement between both sides that cited the hundreds of villages—at that point more than 600 throughout Mindanao—that would be run by the MILF under a still-to-be-created entity. Local politicians and Christian-dominated communities protested, because the leaked document even carried the signatures of all the members of the two panels.
Garcia and other panel members had to fly to Zamboanga to explain to an angry crowd in a six-hour meeting. Local officials of Zamboanga made one thing clear: they didn’t want to be a part of any agency or territory that will be controlled and run by the MILF. Iligan sent the same message.
The explanation and assurances made by the government panel at the time were consistent as the secret negotiations unfolded. They argued that while both panels signed off on joint statements, these were mere technical agreements that in the end would need the concurrent of the entire government. It dismissed all criticism as premature, insisting that all discussions were at a technical level only.
“Technical agreements are submitted and acknowledged by either side. They are the basis of discussion. They do not reflect any political commitments of the government,” Afable explained to reporters after the October 2005 briefing for ambassadors.
The panel, already without Afable, stuck to that line up to the dying hours of the peace agreement in August this year—that even if the MOA-AD contained presumably unconstitutional provisions, Congress would still have to craft the law, anyway, that would embody the agreement, and there would still be the plebiscite to ratify it. In short, the final imprimatur would still come from the legislature and the public.
Because it took a while for the noise on the leaked 2005 draft agreement to die down, the panels learned their lesson: never again should any of the details leave the negotiating table. The consultations that thus followed were low profile and quiet, tackling just in broad strokes the updates on the negotiations—“There’s progress.” “We are close to a breakthrough on the homeland issue.” “Some thorny issues remain unresolved.”—never dropping a hint on what specifically these issues were.
The decision against holding exhaustive, high-profile public consultations is rooted in past experiences both here and abroad. Both sides cite the numerous, highly publicized peace negotiations that various foreign governments had entered into with rebel groups—and how secretly they were held. More importantly, however, they cite Mindanao’s own history as far as public consultations were concerned.
Results of all previous plebiscites on Muslim autonomy, opinion surveys, and researches conducted by the Philippine Information Agency and the Development Academy of the Philippines from the time of former President Corazon Aquino carried one theme that was not lost on both peace panels: majority of the people of Mindanao were consistently against granting autonomy to the Muslims and against returning land that used to be owned by Muslims.
Talk is cheap
Rhetoric for peace in Mindanao usually does not match real sentiment on the ground. In Aquino’s time, when her government was talking peace with MNLF’s Misuari, all the Catholic bishops in the region were all for the granting of autonomy to the Muslim-dominated provinces there, recalled Rodil. They pledged their support to Aquino’s peace agenda. But when they returned to their dioceses, they were met with angry reactions. The bishops backed down and ended up issuing “conditional support” for the peace talks.
“If we did consult them, they were going to say no, anyway,” Rodil explained in relation to the failed MOA-AD. “But we’re resolving a minority issue. Any consultations would have resulted in drawing opinions from the majority…that would have ambushed the resolution of the ancestral domain issue.”
To the government peace panel, the moment the “majority” started making noise, then that noise would “drown” the minority, causing an impasse in the process and an endless cycle of failed talks. It is the so-called settlers who now constitute the majority in the Mindanao, so why should anyone expect them to agree to any homeland deal? Boundaries are such that some people were bound to be hit.
Thus, to the government panel, no amount of consultations would have convinced the critics anyway. To the panel, what they were doing was clear brinkmanship, but they felt that if their principal, President Arroyo, was all for it, then she would help manage any fallout from that “brinkmanship.”
More importantly, the panel enjoyed tremendous autonomy, reporting directly to the President, according to Dureza.
In the early years of the peace talks with the MILF, President Arroyo indicated that she would take care of the much-needed consultations with local executives, according to two sources privy to the early negotiations between the government and the MILF. Such consultations entailed bargaining with them—in exchange for support would be some manna from the Palace. She, in fact, met with a Western Mindanao politician, who had agreed to support the ancestral domain pact last year in exchange for some Palace-backed projects.
But it had been an on-again, off-again process with the MILF, with the longest impasse occurring from September 2006 to October 2007. The MILF knew what it wanted, a homeland even in its most symbolic form. President Arroyo was all for it, but, unlike the MILF, she was not in a position to sell it internally within her political circles without alienating many allies.
It seemed that while the President’s one foot was firmly with the government panel, and every move that it was taking, her other foot was firmly in the political sector that she knew would oppose the pact to high heavens. She was not prepared to expend all her office’s wherewithal for this program, or she simply refused to gamble, says a former adviser.
Ironically, for a peace settlement to come about with a minority group, a president had to be the main player for she alone had the power to convince the vested interests to bend forward, the same adviser adds.
Despite the President’s mixed signals, the process got enough fuel from outside sources: Malaysia, which hosted the talks, as well as the diplomatic community, which wanted to see peace in Mindanao.
Lack of support
So that by the beginning of this year, an agreement on the ancestral domain issue seemed to be in sight. All the key advisers of the President on Mindanao, including members of the government peace panel, agreed to mount an information campaign.
They discussed “how to sell it, how to do high-profile consultations,” said the same source who attended that meeting early this year. Supposed to begin last February, the campaign included events that President Arroyo would have graced. Lawyers who were consulted on the constitutionality of the provisions, such as Joaquin Bernas, told the group that the government better sell these issues before they were made public.
It never took off. Part of the problem was funding, OPAPP cash strapped as it is, according to an adviser of Dureza. Part of the problem was that the information plan was never presented to the President, who was at the time getting impatient with an agreement and who had already set her eyes on her favorite general to accomplish the job for her.
Esperon was soon named as presidential adviser on peace, replacing Dureza, who was appointed press secretary last June. With Esperon and another retired general, peace panel head Rodolfo Garcia, at the helm of the process, the MOA-AD was signed in no time. Well, almost.
Garcia told a forum a month after that fiasco that, indeed, the government’s biggest failure was its inability to institute a “parallel track” that would have built a peace constituency and support for the agreement. With this, the MOA-AD would have had a fairer chance of success, he said.
‘We lacked EQ’
“A public with a fair understanding of the issue will not be taken in by political posturing,” Garcia said.
Rodil was more emphatic: “We lacked EQ. This required public support and political will, and a communication plan was a key ingredient to that.” If he were to do it again, he said, he would have a communication campaign in place, but working outside the panel—so that it would not make promises and commitments that could tie down the panel.
Obviously, Esperon has taken these lessons to heart. He’s now in Mindanao every week to hold dialogues and seminars with various sectors—the Bishop-Ulama Conference, for example—to again talk about the President’s agenda.
With the support of the World Bank, which has hired a professional communication team, the OPAPP is launching mobile information teams in conflict areas, which will talk about the need for peace. These teams carry with them a one-hour TV documentary on Mindanao, to be shown to residents and local officials and business groups, all in the hope of rebuilding whatever is left of the peace process.
Mindanao’s problems, of course, are too complex to be addressed just by merely a savvy communications team. But a plan as basic as that had been lacking in the past, and many had to pay a heavy price for it.
This story is part of Newsbreak’s series on security sector reform funded by the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung-Manila.