With the Bangsamoro “framework agreement” set to be “signed” this month, the Philippines is supposedly on its way towards achieving a future of peace and harmony with and amongst its Muslim minority peoples. It is, supposedly, a political win for Philippine President Benigno Simeon “BS” Aquino III and Malaysian Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak, both of whom are starved for some positive spin to prop up flagging public perceptions on their respective domestic fronts.
Kuala Lumpur and Manila have a lot of political and diplomatic capital invested in this project which is being bandied around as a significant milestone in the road to “peace” and economic prosperity in the Philippine Muslim south…
Helped by Bangsamoro’s main international backer, Muslim-majority Malaysia, the head of the MILF, Al Haj Murad, has been on a roadshow drumming up support and investment for the new, non-sovereign entity. The week before last he was an honoured guest at the eighth World Islamic Economic Forum in Johor Bahru, where his hosts, led by Malaysia’s prime minister, Najib Razak, treated him on a par with heads of state and national representatives. Very nice for the MILF, but also good politics for Malaysia. With a general election coming up, the Malaysian government wants to claim as much credit as it can for the peace agreement, which it helped to broker.
It was all smiles and peachy words during a meeting between the two leaders in Putrajaya this week. “We will offer capacity building for the Bangsamoro people since they will require new skills when they form the future government of southern Philippines,” announced Najib. President BS Aquino for his part highlighted the importance of “boosting security” between Malaysia and the Philippines and the exchange of intelligence to ensure “a high degree of deterrent measures” are in place. “We believe that adherence to the rule of law, positive engagement and sincere dialogue are fundamental if we are to build a truly prosperous and peaceful Southeast Asia — a Southeast Asia where no one is left behind,” Aquino added.
But underneath all this congeniality is a dark world of persistent unresolved issues. We need to look no further back than last year’s international crisis that erupted after forces loyal to Sultan of Sulu Jamalul Kiram III initiated action to highlight a long-festering territorial dispute over the state of Sabah between the Philippine and Malaysian governements. Everyone was caught flat-footed by the unexpected incursion of Kiram’s fighters into the territory of Malaysian-governed state of Sabah while Kuala Lumpur and Manila were in the middle of setting into motion the execution of the “framework agreement” with Al Haj Murad, head of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
Both the Malaysian and Philippine governments’ use of their respective militaries in the handling of the Sabah crisis were severely criticised by the international community. At the height of their military operations in Sabah to flush out Kiram’s forces, Malaysia had exhibited a palpable unwillingness to compromise when it came to the use of deadly force. A report at the time stated that “[Malaysian] fighter jets dropped at least 10 bombs” within a 20-kilometre radius encompassing the Sabah villages of Kampung Tanduo, Tanjung Labian and Kampung Tanjung Batu where many of Kiram’s forces were holed up. All this happened despite pleas from the Philippines’ Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert F. del Rosario to Malaysia to exercise “maximum tolerance” in the handling of the crisis on the ground. These pleas reportedly failed to move the Malaysian government.
The Malaysian government for its part insisted that the assault was a police operation and not one under military command. “We are harnessing technical aspects of the military but the operations remain under the police,” Sabah Police Commissioner Datuk Hamza Taib reportedly said. Malaysia’s use of fighter planes in the assault, however, has brought to question the nature of what is now seen to be excessive force for what is considered to be a “police operation”.
Media outlets all over the world were virtually unanimous in being critical of the way Philippine President Benigno Simeon “BS” Aquino III had handled the crisis. A TIME Magazine article reported…
The President’s uncompromising stance may have far-reaching consequences. Mohagher Iqbal, chief negotiator of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which signed a peace deal with Manila in October after four decades of armed struggle, has already admitted that their own peace talks have been affected. The Philippine media has also been critical of Aquino’s stance. “President Aquino and his officials were throwing to the Malaysian wolves Filipino Muslims digging in what they claimed was their legitimate homeland in Sabah,” says Rigoberto Tiglao in the Manila Times. “With that the president has driven the last nail on the coffin of the Philippine claim to Sabah,” read an editorial on Monday in the Philippine Daily Inquirer. “What he didn’t say to the sultan’s men was: If you get slaughtered by the Malaysians, that’s your fault. Condolences.
The two governments also remain silent on how this teetering “framework agreement” will be pitched to the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC). The Philippines’ Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) through its leader, Nur Misuari, has been sitting in the OIC under an “observer status” since 1977. However, this membership is under the premise that the MNLF is a “non-state actor”, which opens the door for the Philippines’ “national government” in Manila to apply as a member state. What complicates this, however, is that the OIC, in principle, continues to recognise the MNLF as the official representative of the Bangsamoro people, a tenet that is evidently not consistent with the Philippines’ internal politics. While the OIC had “promised” to admit the Philippine government once its Framwork Agreement has been implemented, the question of who really represents Filipino Muslims remains hopelessly open to debate. Unlike other non-muslim countries that have been admitted as permanent observers in the OIC, the Philippine government has yet to demonstrate an ability to competently handle Muslim affairs within its jurisdiction.
Unfortunately, left out of the loop in this most recent “peace” achievement between Manila and Kuala Lumpur were “smaller Islamic militant groups in Mindanao” which, as is now clearly evident, includes people and groups still loyal to the Sultan of Sulu as well as the MILF’s “main rival” the MNLF. Interestingly, the origins of the MILF as a militant breakaway group from the more moderate MNLF was over disagreements with the direction being taken by the MNLF leadership back in 1977 towards renouncing its own separatist agenda in favour of a more “conciliatory” deal with Manila then, a direction which bore fruit ten years later for the MNLF…
In January 1987, the MNLF signed an agreement relinquishing its goal of independence for Muslim regions and accepting the government’s offer of autonomy. The Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the next largest faction, refused to accept the accord and initiated a brief offensive that ended in a truce later that month. By one estimate the Mindanao-based Moro Islamic Liberation Front fielded around 3,000 troops.
With the MILF now as gentrified as the MNLF and in bed with the creations of former colonial masters — the Kuala Lumpur and Manila governments of Malaysia and the Philippines respectively — it’s déjà vu all over again for the Philippine south’s Moro militants. Clearly, no one political entity in the Philippines is on top of the Muslim situation there, and the MNLF and its leader, Nur Misuari, continues to enjoy first dibs as the “representative” of Filipino Muslims on international record.
Filipino observers see this recent “framework agreement” as yet another example of the Philippines’ consistently flaccid performance in the game of big-time international negotiation. In his column on the Manila Standard Today Francisco ‘Kit’ Tatad described the whole exercise as a possible sell-out to Malaysia resulting in “shattered hopes” for many Filipinos…
Many were hoping Aquino would at least try to secure an official statement from Razak expressing hope that a settlement may eventually be reached on Sabah, even though no immediate solution seemed to be on sight right now. They also expected Aquino to ask for clemency, possibly an amnesty, for the 27 Sulu fighters in Malaysian jails. Even Vice President Jejomar C. Binay, in his capacity as presidential adviser on Overseas Filipino Workers’ Concerns, travels to foreign countries to plead for clemency on behalf of convicted OFWs. Yet Aquino said nothing on behalf of the 27, even though have not even been convicted yet.
Indeed, as Tatad observes, this “achievement” may turn out to be a sad definition of the Second Aquino Administration, one characterised by President BS Aquino’s “total surrender of the Sabah claim” all in exchange for nothing more than a need to look good and fulfull his family’s feudal agenda.
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