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Senate Should Probe Mindanao Homeland Deal

It should not buy government assertion that because it no longer wants the agreement in present form, it's a dead issue.

Now the plan to ram through the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain, MOA-AD, has unraveled, the administration of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo is trying to sweep it under the carpet. Now the plan to ram through the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain, MOA-AD, has unraveled, the administration of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo is trying to sweep it under the carpet.

 The agreement has been in limbo ever since Supreme Court issued a temporary restraining order at the request of Christian politicians against the scheduled signing in Malaysia that was planned on August 5. The agreement between the government of the Philippines and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, MILF, would have established an effective sub-state or homeland known as the Bangsamoro Juridical Entity in Mindanao.

While the Supreme Court is conducting its review, Arroyo's factotums are now saying that, no matter what the Supreme Court eventually decides, it no longer matters since the administration no longer wants the MOA.

Just like that.

The government then segues into a supposed whole new strategy: that the peace process in Mindanao is now going to be done with communities, not armed groups, and that these communities will be consulted and will participate in the crafting of any agreement with the MILF.

The entire thing is laughable – or, perhaps, more accurately maddening – since this is what the government should have done in the first place.

In the meantime, the damage has been done. Entire communities have been obliterated, both by rogue elements of the MILF and by the military, which recently launched offensive actions supposedly aimed at the rebels but actually displaced and maimed innocent civilians, both Moro and non-Moro.

No, this regime should not be allowed to get away with its blunders, miscalculations, if not even outright deception.

It must have known that the MOA would never pass muster. So can people be blamed if they now think that this is nothing but a ruse to initiate constitutional change in congress with the aim of extending Arroyo's term?

The senate should pursue an investigation into MOA and how it was crafted. It should not buy the government’s assertion that because it no longer wants it in its present form, it's a dead issue. The agreement and the circumstances that surround it simply beg to be investigated.

And the Supreme Court should issue its decision on MOA whether this government wants it or not.

What of the MILF? To be fair, it has always been consistent that it will not negotiate within what it sees as the rigid confines of the Philippine constitution – and who can blame them? The peace agreement with the Moro National Liberation Front was consistent with the constitution, and look what happened to it and the Moro areas? The MNLF declared war on this same government seven years ago after it accused Arroyo of reneging on a 1996 agreement.

While our 21-year-old constitution, such as it is, should not be tweaked simply just to accommodate MOA, it is a living document. If giving justice to the Bangsamoro necessitates changing the constitution, then by all means we should change it. The only problem, of course, is that those who wish to do so have a vested interest in the act. Many believe that allowing the current administration to mess around with the constitution is a bit like giving a burglar the keys to your house.

In any case, the MILF has certainly improved its ability to negotiate over the years and saw an opportunity to pursue an agreement that would see them move beyond the constitution: They quickly grabbed it – and again, who can blame them? There is a confluence of different interests at stake here, and I suspect the MILF decided to play along because it had nothing to lose and everything to win.

Had the signing pushed through in Kuala Lumpur with all those dignitaries and representatives of foreign governments around to witness the event, can you imagine what that could have done to improve the cachet of the MILF in the international community?

But given that Arroyo doesn’t have any remaining political capital to work with, the MILF should probably think about suspending negotiations with the government.

As Zachary Abuza, an American expert on terrorism in Southeast Asia, who has done extensive research on the MILF, told me, “President Arroyo is such a lame duck right now that she lacks the political capital to get any constitutional amendment passed in the final year plus of her term. So the MILF could be in limbo for another two to three years until a new president is settled in.”

So does this mean that the ceasefire and peace is now at an end and that all-out war is its logical consequence? Not necessarily. If the MILF really respects human rights and adheres to international humanitarian laws and the laws of conflict, Commander Bravo and the other MILF regional leaders, accused of the recent atrocities committed against civilians, should stand down.

The important thing to keep in mind is that if the MILF plays its cards right and controls its troops – it bears repeating that the MILF gains nothing from attacking civilians – the burden of stilling the guns and keeping the peace in Mindanao lies with Arroyo.

Thankfully, while a military campaign ostensibly to hunt down renegade MILF commanders continues, the government is still showing signs that it is pursuing the peace process, that it is showing some restraint (if not calibration) in dealing with the MILF, and that it promised to launch nationwide consultations on MOA.

The government simply cannot afford to abandon the peace process in Mindanao according to Julkipli Wadi, a professor of Islamic studies at the University of the Philippines.

To be sure, there are elements in the military and government who will try to provoke the MILF into doing something silly. I wouldn't be surprised if bombs suddenly go off in key cities, including Metro Manila, in the days ahead. I can almost see now terrorist suspects being paraded before the television cameras and for the government to claim such people were part of an MILF plot to sow terror and to distract the military from its offensive.

We've seen it all before. Already National Security Adviser Norberto Gonzales has declared that those behind the Lanao del Norte atrocities have links to Jemaah Islamiyah.

The MILF, however, should not take the bait and allow the government in its dying days to hijack Bangsamoro's long-standing aspirations or to try and claim the moral high ground.

Carlos H Conde is a Mindanaoan journalist who writes for the International Herald Tribune.

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