MANILA — Nearly a decade since the landmark signing of the historic peace pact that paved the way for the creation of the Bangsamoro region, Miriam Coronel-Ferrer, who served as the Philippine government's chief negotiator, is finally being honored for her "long-standing peace advocacy that has gone beyond the country’s borders."
Coronel-Ferrer is one of this year's recipients of the Ramon Magsaysay Awards, considered Asia's Nobel Prize.
"In electing Miriam Coronel-Ferrer to receive the [award], the board of
trustees recognizes her deep, unwavering belief in the transformative power of non-violent strategies in peace building, her cool intelligence... and her unstinting devotion to the agenda of harnessing the power of women in creating a just and peaceful world," the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation (RMAF) said.
But before being lauded for the successes, Coronel-Ferrer had to carry the burden not only of being a woman leading the peace panel but the unpopularity of the peace process itself.
"This was not a popular initiative. [There were] a lot of critics from all over. Social media was particularly vicious... [And] as you know sa umpisa may hesitation na babae ang mamuno dito sa negotiation process na ito," she recalled during an interview organized by the RMAF last Sep. 4.
Coronel-Ferrer took over as the chairperson and chief negotiator of the government peace panel in 2012 following the appointment to the Supreme Court of Prof. Marvic Leonen, who led the resumption of peace talks with the Moro insurgents in 2010.
Being the first woman chair of the peace panel, Coronel-Ferrer approached the job with humility, acknowledging the other party’s “cultural differences” and working around it.
In a 2014 interview by Conciliation Resources, Coronel-Ferrer said: “We did have some initial resistance from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). There was some hesitancy to work with a woman chair for some perceived cultural reasons but they took up the challenge and we respect them for that.”
Despite this challenge, Coronel-Ferrer never backed down in incorporating women's issues in the historic peace agreement with the MILF.
"In our negotiation, we had to point out to them that what they wanted in terms of parity between the Filipino majority and the Bangsamoro community, there's also the question of parity between men and women. To a certain extent, we have put certain guarantees there for gender, the rise of women, in the provision, and also significantly in the law that was passed," she said during the Sept. 4 interview.
In 2015, or a year before the Bangsamoro bill was projected to be passed into law, Coronel-Ferrer would face arguably the biggest crisis of her career as the government’s peace panel chair.
On January 25, 2015, a bloody clash in Mamasapano, Maguindanao took place, resulting in the death of 44 Special Action Force (SAF) troops and 17 Moro fighters.
For many, the Mamasapano tragedy was the beginning of the end for the then-Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL).
President Benigno Aquino III's approval and trust ratings were at its lowest, losing his clout in Congress and derailing the passage of the BBL.
Despite the doomed future of the BBL, Coronel-Ferrer would continue to defend the agreement from critics even at the risk of being accused of siding with “terrorists.”
Three years after the tragedy, Rodrigo Duterte, the first Mindanaoan president, would breathe new life into the peace process by signing the Bangsamoro Organic Law.
Until now, Coronel-Ferrer remains the only female chief negotiator in history to sign a major peace accord.
She conceded that this recognition would not have been possible without the efforts of the women who came before her.
“In a way, ang Pilipinas pioneer din sa inclusion ng women. Maybe it’s the whole context of democratization, the fruits of the women’s rights movement in the Philippines, which has made it a little bit easier,” she said.
While Coronel-Ferrer has been out of the local news cycle for quite a while now, her work as a sought-after peace negotiator continues.
In 2020, she co-founded the Southeast Asian Network of Women Peace Negotiators and Mediators (SEANWPNM), a group of women "who seek to actively contribute to the maintenance of peace and stability, not just in their region but beyond."
Coronel-Ferrer remains conscious of her stature as a role model for women peace negotiators.
"Nung nangyari ito (the signing of the peace pact), nakita natin na maganda ang epekto sa ibang kababaihan. Maraming kababihan mula don sa community mismo sa Bangsamoro, lumalapit and they said 'Congrats, ma'am, you made it there. Now we know that women can do it as well.' So parang accumulation of women who showed that it can be done by women and it can be done well and it inspires other women," she told reporters.
However, Coronel-Ferrer and other women peace negotiators, no matter how accomplished they are, still face some form of sexism.
"This is the deal: Sometimes when you package your group as a women's group, you get stuck with women's issues when what you want to do is really deal with the 'hard stuff' which was a field dominated by men," she lamented.
Coronel-Ferrer shared an experience earlier this year in Timor-Leste, when she and her colleagues from SEANWPNM sought a dialogue with the country's prime minister.
"When we wanted to meet with the Prime Minister, he arranged instead [for us] to meet with the minister of women's affairs. We certainly want to hear the women's issues but we wanted to talk to the top political leadership [about] the very contentious election exercise… So you sort of relegated to there, to that position," she said.
"That's what we want to break. We’re mediators. Yes, we are women, we bring in the women's perspective, but don't box us only in women's issues," she explained.
During the same interview, Coronel-Ferrer shared some of the lessons she's learned as a chief peace negotiator, from the technical side of it down to the more abstract qualities one has to posses in the negotiating table.
"You need creativity, you need good language engineering, because an agreement is a text, and you need to find the right words, you need to put it in a way that it does not create doubts or fear on any of your stakeholders," she said.
"You need to have empathy for the cause. If you hate the other party, it shows, and they will hate you back," she added.