Critics have derided the August 4 meeting of President Noynoy Aquino and Moro Islamic Liberation Front chair Ebrahim Murad as hasty, lacking in transparency, and ill-advised. Some even raised fears of a ‘secret deal’ and nitpicked on the diplomatic implications.
Perhaps the element of surprise – that it was pulled off with the mass media unaware – explains part of this frustration of commentators who only saw the tail end but not the thorough discussions that went into the decision and the preparations that were done once the offer to meet with Murad was processed with the other party and the plan was set in motion.
The chair of our negotiating panel, Marvic Leonen, already gave the lowdown in countless press interviews. The MILF’s statement posted on their website (www.luwaran.cm) even narrated the sequence of events. Both parties have recounted that in our panel meeting last 27 June where we were supposed to present government’s proposal, we instead received the MILF’s effuse appreciation of PNOY’s offer, and discussed the talking points, venue and other practical details of the planned event.
Mindanao as venue was discounted for security reasons. The two parties, including the President, agreed on Japan, as the nearest and also most involved in the peace process among the four member-countries of the International Contact Group. The GPH panel chair thus forwarded the request to Minister Hitoshi Ozawa. The good minister was closing his two-year stint in the country and had to forego his vacation to work out the details with his government. Certainly, Japan’s tight gun control eased the concerns of the President’s security group.
Should all these steps have been broadcasted to the public?
If they were, the meeting could not have happened as smoothly as it did. As it were, no untoward incident imperiled the lives of anyone in the delegation. The hotel staff, Japan’s and our security personnel were totally discreet. No haughty, uninformed commentator had the chance to disparage the President’s sincere intention and dampen the mood. No mob besieged the delegations before, during or after the brief meet-and-greet of the two parties in the second -floor function room of Crowne Plaza ANA Hotel in Narita, and the longer one-on-one in the adjoining smaller room. Throughout, it was a quiet, pleasant engagement without posturing on either side.
Was there any breach in diplomacy?
Those raising this issue are confusing their premises and distorting their conclusions. The closed-door Narita engagement was a meeting of the President with a representative of a segment of his constituency. If the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Malaysian Embassy in the Philippines were not involved, it was precisely because it was neither a state visit nor a negotiation. Comparisons with past ‘secret meetings’ between states (for example, in Amado Doronilla’s piece in the 8 August issue of Inquirer) which were supposedly done with more transparency are irrelevant.
Sitting face-to-face in black suits on elegant chairs on a thick carpet in a foreign country does not make the meeting state-to-state. International humanitarian law applicable to domestic conflict is clear that any recognition of rights and responsibilities or legitimacy to a party does not change the legal standing of the armed group. There was thus no elevation of the MILF’s status beyond that of a domestic non-state armed group engaged in peace talks -- fellow-citizens who are exploring ways and means to transform an adversarial relationship with the government into a partnership.
The President, in offering the handshake, did not demean himself. He proved who he is: the leader of the country who wants everyone to work together with him in achieving peace and development for all.
No secret deal
When the mission was accomplished, it was promptly reported to the public through the mass media. For those looking for skeletons or concessions tucked into the meeting, they will not find anything more than what government spokespersons and PNOY himself have already said about the visit: a frank and friendly exchange wherein the MILF expressed its appreciation and its confidence in the sincerity of the President, and explained their aspirations for self-governance; and where, on the other hand, PNOY shared his perspective and goals for the region and the country. In the end, they agreed to proceed with the peace negotiations, assured that the President will implement whatever his administration commits, and consequently will not commit anything that he cannot implement.
Broadsheet headlines describing the meeting and its outcome as “secret” – replete with connotations of an evil or illicit intent or a sellout – has provided ammunition to use against the administration or set off out-of-bounds speculations.
The arrangements and event certainly were confidential in order to meet the objective and security standards so much so that the President thought it best not to mention anything about the peace process in his July 25 SONA lest he, in his spontaneity, reveals the plan-in-the-offing. But prudence and confidentiality should not be equated with illicit or non-transparency. The right to information of the public was promptly met, without derailing the process.
Whether or not the meeting was a mistake remains to be seen. But several good things have already been achieved: greater trust between the parties which augurs well for the negotiations on the substantive agenda, a public now more aware of the current stage of the peace process, and a renewed government commitment to find a cohesive, democratic, just and implementable answer to the Bangsamoro question that has confounded our Republic in the last 60 years.
* Prof. Miriam Coronel Ferrer of the Political Science Department of the University of the Philippines is a member of the Philippine government peace panel for talks with the MILF. She joined President Aquino’s advance party in the meeting in Japan.