One question stayed unanswered during all of last week, when the working press took several days off. It had to do with the threats of “war” in Mindanao coming from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, from an unnamed spokesman of the Malaysian defense ministry, and from President B. S. Aquino 3rd himself. One reader wanted to know why, instead of showing umbrage over the offensive MILF and Malaysian statements, Aquino chose to threaten the Babala’s opponents.
They have said that if Aquino forces the passage of Babala, despite all the valid objections to it, it could trigger a violent backlash in the South. Aquino has chosen to behave in exactly the same manner as he did when he bribed the members of Congress to force the enactment of the widely opposed Reproductive Health Law that has put the State in charge of the procreative rights of Filipinos. The anti-RH crowd did not warn of war then, and no war ensued despite the funny Supreme Court ruling that pronounced as “not unconstitutional” the patently unconstitutional measure. But the opponents of Babala, especially those whose religious and property rights may be directly threatened, could take up arms in protest.
The Jan. 25, 2015 Mamasapano massacre and the public outrage over Aquino’s unexplained accountability for the death of the 44 PNP-Special Action Force commandos have apparently prevented Malacañang from using money to corrupt the legislators and buy their support for the measure. Any one of them could be so angry about the massacre that they could expose any bribery operation. Malacañang therefore has shifted to other tactics. That has not diminished the opposition to the measure. Some of the media hype on the Babala is also being exposed by neutral observers.
How much of Mindanao is really at war, and how much at peace?
Ramon M. de Vera, a businessman-friend from Mindanao, points out that despite the high rhetoric about the whole island not being at peace, 94 percent of Mindanao’s land area (91,678 square kms.), where 95 percent of the 21.6 million population lives, is at peace. Maguindanao, which is subject to the Babala, covers only 6 percent of Mindanao (5,971 square kms), with a population of less than one million (5 percent of the total). The rest of Mindanao is a growth area, where Muslims, Christians and Lumads are harmoniously and productively integrated. This is evident in Davao, Bukidnon, General Santos, North Cotabato, Compostela, Surigao, Pagadian, North Zamboanga, and even the other regions up the way to Luzon. I first saw this in the estate of the late Toto Paglas, where he has Jews, Muslims, Christians and Lumads working together.
This basic data is important. We cannot allow the fate of the whole of Mindanao, not to say the entire country, to be held hostage by the politics of 5 percent of the Mindanaoans. This does not mean the rights of this minority should not be protected as much as those of the majority, they have to be. All I am saying is that we cannot allow the entire island, not to say nation, to be bamboozled by this minority, just because it has managed to get a rich neighbor to fund, arm and train its fighters to wage a vicious insurgency. Aquino must explain why it has allowed Malaysia to fund, arm and train the MILF without the kind of protest he is ready to raise against China over the smallest incident, why it has allowed Malaysia to act as “honest broker” in the peace negotiations with the MILF, and why even the Office of Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (OPAPP) seems to be eating out of Kuala Lumpur’s hands.
Why war is not an option
We want peace, just as any other country wants peace, but not peace at any price. If a shooting war should erupt as the consequence of our standing for our national sovereignty and territorial integrity, we should be ready as a people to find more honor in fighting on our feet than dying on our knees. Especially, if we could compel Aquino to vacate and leave the business of the State in more capable and worthy hands.
But given the fact that we renounce war as an instrument of national policy, and our defense and security position has been ravaged by our graft-ridden defense acquisition contracts and the unpunished and unquantified theft of the funds for our military modernization, we should never consider war except as a last recourse. We cannot engage Malaysia in an air-sea battle and expect the United States, just because of our Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), to fight our war for us.
The solution, I believe, is neither to push nor to completely abandon the idea of a political entity for the MILF, but rather to make it part of the federalization of the entire republic. The Muslim territory desiring autonomy should be integrated as a component unit of a federal Philippine republic, under the same terms and conditions as all the other component units, without having to stand as a separate Islamic state. This would remove all the objections we are hearing now against the Bangsamoro political entity, by whatever name we call it.
Reactivate the Bishops-Ulama Conference
We need a genuinely new beginning for the entire country, with all the regions and ethnic communities from North to South involved in it. The government should work with the Muslim, Christian and Lumad communities in a way it has not done in the last four years. It could do this through the Bishops-Ulama Conference, which played a major role in the peace process from Ramos’ time through the Estrada and Arroyo presidencies until Aquino took over.
In a recent lecture at the Ignatian Institute of Religious Education Foundation, Archbishop Emeritus Fernando Capalla of Davao, former president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, and co-founder of the BUC, described the BUC as “the missing link” in the Mindanao peace process. Simply by calling on the BUC to reactivate itself and resume its peace consultations, Aquino will have no need for his so-called “national peace council” which he has tasked to conduct a “summit” on the Babala. The peace council has nothing to offer which the BUC was not already engaged in. And the BUC casts a far wider net. It was doing a wonderful job until Aquino torpedoed it because of politics.
Organized in 1996 by Archbishop Capalla, then chairman of the CBCP Episcopal Commission on Interreligious Dialogue (ECID), and Dr. Mahid Mutilan, head of the Ulama League of the Philippines, after the GRP-MNLF peace agreement brokered by Indonesia, it was made up of 24 Catholic Bishops, 24 Muslim Ulama and 18 Protestant bishops and pastors. It had a calming effect on people living in areas plagued by suspicion and mistrust for one another.
It gained instant public recognition when it, among other things, condemned the murder of Oblate bishop Ben de Jesus of the Apostolic Vicariate of Jolo; helped in the release of kidnapped priests without having to pay ransom; negotiated with the CPP/NPA/NDF officials in Utrecht, in collaboration with the government, to obtain the release of AFP General Obillo and Capt. Montealto; started the regionwide celebration of the Mindanao Week of Peace; created the A’immah-Pastors-Priests Forum, and the AFP-PNP-BUC Peace Forum; and helped organize Peace Zones in Muslim-dominated areas.
UNESCO recognized it as the only tripartite association of bishops and ulama of its kind in the world. Saint John Paul II recognized it as one effective implementor of the Assisi Peace Accord, and Pope Benedict XVI praised it as a government peace partner in his remarks welcoming the last Philippine ambassador to the Vatican. Under Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, the BUC got involved in international peace conferences organized by the UN. When the Pakistani government asked Arroyo for help in organizing a peace process, she sent the BUC board of directors to Islamabad City for meetings with Pakistani religious leaders.
Even while the first agreement with the MILF under GMA (the MOA-AD) was still being finalized in Kuala Lumpur, the BUC was already discussing a project for the healing of wounds that may arise from the agreement. After the Supreme Court declared the MOA-AD unconstitutional for lack of adequate consultations, among others, the BUC was asked by Malacañang to conduct regionwide consultations, in response to the ruling.
Despite the lack of official support, the BUC has managed to survive under the leadership of Archbishop Capalla, even in a reduced form. In recent months, I had the opportunity to speak to two of its Bishops-Ulama Forums on the issue of national transformation. Three presidents before Aquino recognized the valuable contribution the BUC could make to the search for peace in Mindanao. For as long as Aquino remains in office, he has to abandon the idea that just because something had worked for any of his predecessors, it cannot possibly work for him.