The Memorandum of Agreemment on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD) that was supposed to be signed by the GRP and the MILF has a trap laid by the U.S. for the Moro revolutionary group, a progressive legislator said.
BY ALEXANDER MARTIN REMOLLINO
Vol. VIII, No. 28, August 17-23, 2008
The Memorandum of Agreemment on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD) that was supposed to be signed by the Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) has a trap laid by the U.S. for the Moro revolutionary group, a progressive legislator has said. Rep. Satur Ocampo of Bayan Muna (People First) said the MOA-AD’s provisions on exploitation of resources in the areas that are to comprise the Bangsamoro Juridical Entity (BJE) as part of the deal could lead to U.S. economic control over the region.
Ocampo expressed this view in an Aug. 14 media dialogue on the MOA-AD jointly organized by the Center for Community Journalism and Devopment (CCJD), Mindanao Peoples Caucus, National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP), and the Philippine Human Rights Reporting Project in Quezon City. He was among the speakers in the forum, together with Prof. Rudy Rodil, vice chairman of the GRP Peace Panel in the negotiations with the MILF; Atty. Musib Buat, MILF Peace Panel member; Atty. Mary Ann Arnado of the Mindanao Peoples Caucus; and Froilan Gallardo, editor-in-chief of Sunstar Cagayan de Oro.
The Bayan Muna representative was referring specifically to the portion of the MOA-AD that states:
“Jurisdiction and control over, and the right of exploring for, exploiting, producing and obtaining all potential sources of energy, petroleum, in situ, fossil fuel, mineral oil and natural gas, whether onshore or offshore, is vested in the BJE as the party having control within its territorial jurisdiction, provided that in times of national emergency, when public interest so requires, the Central Government may, during the emergency, for a fixed period and under reasonable terms as may be agreed by both Parties, temporarily assume or direct the operations of such strategic
The MOA-AD, of which copies were distributed during the Aug. 5 forum, was to be signed by the GRP and the MILF last Aug. 5, but the Supreme Court on Aug. 4 issued a temporary restraining order on its signing following a petition by North Cotabato Vice Gov. Emmanuel Piñol, supported by another petition filed by Zamboanga City Mayor Celso Lobregat and two congressmen.
The MILF, which originated from a faction that broke away from the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) in 1978, has been engaged in peace negotiations with the GRP since 1996 – the same year that the MNLF inked a Final Peace Agreement with the GRP.
Most contentious issue
The ancestral domain issue, which was first discussed only in 2004 or some eight years after the talks started, has turned out to be the most contentious issue in the GRP-MILF peace negotiations.
The MILF last year was proposing a Bangsamoro Juridical Entity (BJE) that would be based on an ancestral domain claim of the Bangsa Moro over Mindanao, Sulu, and Palawan.
The GRP had insisted that areas to be covered by the BJE other than the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) should be subjected to a plebiscite. This repeatedly led to an impasse in the peace negotiations with the group.
The impasse was broken only in November last year, when the GRP and the MILF reached an agreement defining the land and maritime areas to be covered by the proposed BJE.
Things seemed to be looking up after that, prompting lawyer Eid Kabalu, MILF spokesperson, to make media statements to the effect that they expected a final agreement to be signed by mid-2008.
But all hopes for forging a peace pact between the GRP and the MILF were dashed last December, when the peace talks hit a snag following the government’s insistence that the ancestral domain issue be settled through “constitutional processes” – a phrase which, according to MILF chief negotiator Mohagher Iqbal, had been inserted into the agreement without their consent.
The December deadlock on ancestral domain was followed by a series of clashes between government troops and the MILF, as well as a partial pullout of the Malaysian contingent from the International Monitoring Team (IMT) which is tasked with monitoring the implementation of agreements related to the peace talks, as well as development projects in the areas of conflict.
Even as the GRP-MILF conflict showed signs of re-escalation, however, both sides were talking about the possibility of signing an agreement on ancestral domain sometime this year.
On Aug. 5 both parties were to sign the MOA-AD, which seeks to establish a BJE encompassing areas predominantly inhabited by Moros – including the ARMM, which was to serve as the core of the new region. The residents of the areas sought to be covered by the BJE were to vote in a plebiscite sometime in 2009.
But the Supreme Court issued a temporary restraining order on the signing of the MOA, following petitions filed by Piñol, Lobregat and other local politicians.
“We were wondering why the GRP allowed (in the MOA-AD) provisions on changing the (country’s) legal framework to make possible the establishment of the BJE,” Ocampo said.
The Bayan Muna representative then made reference to the U.S. role in the GRP-MILF peace negotiations. “The U.S. has had a big role in the GRP-MILF peace talks since 2003,” he pointed out.
This statement by Ocampo is confirmed by no less than a report of the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), a U.S. quasi-government group, on the peace talks. A report written by G. Eugene Martin, executive director of the USIP’s Philippine Facilitation Project (PFP), and Astrid S. Tuminez, the project’s senior research associate, titled “Toward Peace in the Southern Philippines: A Summary and Assessment of the Philippine Facilitation Project, 2003-2007” – states that:
“In 2003, the U.S. State Department, seeking to prevent international terrorist groups from exploiting the conflict in the Philippines, engaged the (USIP) to facilitate a peace agreement between the Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP) and the MILF. The State Department felt that the Institute’s status as a quasi-governmental, ‘track one-and-a-half’ player would allow it to engage the parties more broadly than an official government entity could. To accomplish its mandate, USIP launched the Philippine Facilitation Project…”
The report by Martin and Tuminez contains references to a May 2003 exchange of letters between then MILF chairman Salamat Hashim (who died July 2003) and U.S. President George W. Bush.
When Mrs. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo visited the U.S. in May 2003, Bush declared that “the United States will provide diplomatic and financial support to a renewed peace process if the MILF will “abandon the path of violence . . . and addresses its grievances through peaceful negotiations.” (The MILF was then resisting government offensives that were part of an all-out war declared by the Arroyo administration.) U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage added that while “the United States absolutely supports the territorial integrity of the Philippines…we also recognize that the people of Mindanao have legitimate aspirations and some grievances.”
Hashim, in response, wrote to Bush on May 20, 2003 stating that the MILF “has repeatedly renounced terrorism publicly as a means of attaining its political ends,” to which U.S. Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly replied that the U.S. “recognizes that the Muslims of the southern Philippines have serious, legitimate grievances that must be addressed” – while at the same time reiterating that his government “is concerned about the links between the MILF and international terrorist organizations and asks that those links be severed immediately.” Kelly added that if these alleged links were severed, the U.S. would be ready to politically and financially support the GRP-MILF peace talks.
“The U.S. offered the MILF economic assistance to entice them into the peace talks with the GRP,” Ocampo said.
Ancestral domain workshop
The report by Martin and Tuminez relates how the PFP organized and facilitated a workshop on ancestral domain for members of both the GRP and MILF peace panels. States the report:
“PFP Senior Research Associate Astrid S. Tuminez undertook extensive research on the history, substance, and likely trajectories of negotiations over ancestral domain. She wrote a white paper, which was submitted to members of the GRP and MILF peace panels. Subsequently, PFP conducted a three-day workshop on ancestral domain in Mindanao, bringing together members of the GRP peace panel, MILF-designated representatives, and a small group of Mindanao experts and observers to listen to, and interact directly with, international scholars and practitioners who had dealt firsthand with conflicts in their own countries related to ancestral domain (e.g., land, resources, and governance). International participants shared the cases of Native Americans, Maoris, Sri Lankans, Sudanese, Inuits, Northern Irish, and the Bougainvillean peoples. Each expert underlined common threads of conflict over ancestral domain, highlighted successes and failures in negotiations, and analyzed arrangements reached in their respective case studies. None suggested a ‘right way’ of addressing ancestral domain, but all attested to the difficulties associated with negotiations over land, resources, and governance. Several experts also emphasized the need to buttress any ancestral domain agreement with institutions, procedures, and other forms of support toward effective implementation…
After the ancestral domain workshop, Dr. Tuminez wrote a USIP Special Report, ‘Ancestral Domain in Comparative Perspective,’ which became a reference document for the GRP and MILF teams. Copies were provided to the negotiating panels, and discussions were held with panel members and advisers. PFP also sponsored subsequent visits to Manila and Mindanao by international experts on ancestral domain, conflict resolution, and comparative autonomy… PFP also shared with the peace panels analyses, literature summaries, and materials pertinent to ancestral domain, autonomy, and self-determination. When members of the negotiating panels requested assistance on specific issues or source materials, PFP responded promptly. USIP’s initiatives on ancestral domain also motivated the Canadian embassy in Manila to sponsor a visit to Manila and Mindanao by Canadian government officials and leaders of indigenous groups to share their experience on land claims agreements with the government, Moros, and civil society.”
Ocampo said the U.S. involvement even in the issue of ancestral domain, the negotiations for which led to the drafting of the MOA-AD, explains why the Arroyo administration allowed provisions seeking to establish the BJE. “The Arroyo government allowed this agreement because it has the support and involvement of the U.S.,” he said.
Roots of conflict
Moro historian Salah Jubair traces the roots of the present conflict in southern Philippines to the U.S. annexation of Mindanao and Sulu into the Philippine territory in 1946. Jubair argues that the Bangsa Moro is a people with a socio-political, economic, and cultural system distinct from that of the Filipino people.
The inclusion of Mindanao and Sulu in the scope of the 1946 “independence” granted to the Philippines paved the way for large-scale non-Muslim migration to the two islands. This large-scale migration, which began in the 1950s, brought with it the problem of land grabbing.
At some point the government even instituted a Mindanao Homestead Program, which involved giving land parcels seized from Moro peoples to landless peasants from the Visayas islands and Luzon and also to former communist guerrillas who availed of amnesty.
This was intended to defuse the peasant unrest and the revolutionary war that was staged in the late 1940s and early 1950s by the communist-led Hukbong Mapagpalaya ng Bayan (HMB or People’s Liberation Army), which was basically a peasant army.
The Jabidah Massacre triggered widespread outrage among the Moros and led to the formation of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) that same year. The MNLF, led by former University of the Philippines (UP) professor Nur Misuari, waged an armed revolutionary struggle against the GRP for an independent state in Mindanao.
The Marcos government, weighed down by the costs of the Mindanao war, negotiated for peace and signed an agreement with the MNLF in Tripoli, Libya in 1976. The pact involved the grant of autonomy to the Mindanao Muslims.
Conflicts on the issue of autonomy led to a breakdown of talks between the GRP and the MNLF in 1978, prompting a group led by Hashim to break away from the MNLF and form the MILF. Since then, the MILF has been fighting for Moro self-determination.
In 1996, the MNLF signed the Final Peace Agreement with the GRP. That same year, the MILF began peace negotiations with the GRP.
While the peace agreement with the MNLF supposedly holds, armed skirmishes between the AFP and MNLF did not stop. On Nov. 19, 2001, Misuari declared war on the Arroyo government for allegedly reneging on its commitments to the Final Peace Agreement. The MNLF then attacked an Army headquarters in Jolo. Misuari was subsequently arrested in Sabah, Malaysia for illegal entry and was turned over to the Philippine government by Malaysian authorities. He is currently under house arrest.
Among the main areas claimed by the MILF as part of the Bangsamoro’s ancestral domain is Liguasan Marsh, the country’s biggest wetland, of which they occupy a significant portion.
Covering 288,000 hectares, Liguasan Marsh cuts across four provinces: North Cotabato, South Cotabato, Sultan Kudarat, and Maguindanao. The area is rich in oil and natural gas reserves that as yet remain untapped. MNLF founding chairman and former ARMM Gov. Nur Misuari, citing estimates by American oil engineers, said total earnings from the natural gas reserves of the Liguasan Marsh could amount to $580 billion.
Tuminez stressed the importance of the Liguasan Marsh in a USIP presentation she delivered in 2005. “Because of the marsh’s tremendous actual and potential resources, it is likely going to be a focal point of ancestral domain talks,” she said.
Ocampo stressed that the MILF needs to be vigilant in its negotiations with the GRP particularly on ancestral domain.
“There is a trap for the MILF, laid by the U.S., in the MOA-AD,” he said. “The MILF should be on guard because the gains it expects from the MOA-AD may end up being plundered.” Bulatlat