THE Philippine Council for Foreign Relations (PCFR) is a multi-sectoral grouping composed of retired Filipino diplomats and armed forces flag-officers, business executives, academic and civil society representatives. The PCFR is dedicated to upholding a constitutional mandate for this country to pursue an independent foreign policy. It is against this background that the membership of the council is dismayed by the seemingly inordinate attention that foreign governments have given to what can be considered as a strictly local affair.
It is unfortunate that what should have been treated as a purely domestic issue relating to a constitutionally erected autonomous region has assumed international dimensions with a comprehensive agreement between this nation and its autonomous region in the south – signed, sealed and delivered under the patronizing gaze of so-called foreign sponsors to a Mindanao peace process.
Instead of the whole matter being placed in the hands of the Department of the Interior and Local Governments, the issue now internationalized has fallen into the lap of the Department of Foreign Affairs giving the MILF the status of a belligerent state, which state under international law has given it an importance far above that of its status of an autonomous region of this Republic.
Recently the Council took notice of a manifesto recently \to media by some foreign chiefs-of-mission urging the Aquino government to pass the highly unconstitutional original mission of the CAB and the BBL as the solution to the Mindanao peace and order situation. This the Council deemed as undue interference and a violation of the hallowed principle of non-interference in purely domestic affairs, especially since this matter is still being deliberated in Congress and has been elevated to the Supreme Court making it sub-judicial.
The fact that the spokesman of the group – the British Ambassador whose country questionably annexed Sabah without regard to the Philippines in the early sixties and made it a part of the Federation of Malaysia, which has spawned a lot of hostilities in Mindanao — is perhaps the last person to be the spokesperson of the group in this controversial issue. His public criticism of legislators who stayed away from Congress during the BBL discussions can only be deemed highly inappropriate. Perhaps it is good to remind the British Ambassador that this nation is not a part of Malaysia or the British Commonwealth.
Parenthetically, as Ambassador to the Court of St. James in the UK as well as envoy to the Scandinavian countries, my father in all the years that he served as Chief of Mission in his postings never dared to comment on purely domestic matters nor did he dare to criticize or advise members of parliament. For my part, as Ambassador to Italy, I refrained from commenting publicly on issues discussed by political parties. This simply was not proper protocol.
In the case of the United States, its stepping up activities in the southern Philippines which includes bringing former combatants from Cotabato and Sulu to Manila to attend sessions designed “to help them sort out their self-identity” seems to be at odds with the desire of this nation to develop a multi-cultural society as a road towards peace in an island occupied by Muslims, Indigenous People and Christians.
In the same vein, efforts by the US Embassy, however commendable, to establish legal aid clinics at law schools in Mindanao and Palawan through a legal assistance program in Mindanao, allegedly aimed at “instilling” awareness among youth in Mindanao about legal rights and helping improve access to justice for marginalized Muslim communities in Mindanao fosters exclusiveness which goes against the goal of this country to integrate the Muslim community into the mainstream of a nation composed of different socio-cultural groupings. A US AID internship program that allows university students and recent graduates who live primarily within the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao to intern in the offices of Philippine lawmakers in Manila allegedly designed to help Muslim youth in conflict-affected areas gain an understanding of democratic values and institutions, governance issues and the process of legislating, seem to be unusual given that Muslim legislators in Congress already pack their offices with Muslim youths who have been inculcated in schools with the virtues of democracy – a task that has been promoted assiduously by our Department of Education in all parts of the country regardless of the local people’s religious denomination.
Finally, the US grant to students from the University of Mindanao in a month-long internship with grassroots organizations that champion human rights, gender equality, and community empowerment and the bringing of legal professionals and law students from institutions based in Mindanao to the United States where they met US government officials and nongovernment sectors involved in civic legal aid and conflict resolution as part of the annual international visitor leadership program is an affront to University of Mindanao officials who have to export their graduates to the US to learn about human rights and community empowerment. We had thought all this time that the school of higher learning had already these basic courses as part of their curriculum.
In this connection, we have to remind the US that it’s “manifest destiny” (an invention of President McKinley) to “civilize” this nation ended with the grant of Philippine Independence in 1946.
The actuations of our foreign allies in the Mindanao peace process, which as we said earlier is a purely domestic issue to be best solved among Filipinos regardless of religious affiliation, has raised a lot of speculations regarding the rectitude of their intentions and raised suspicions that alien interests have hidden agendas and are merely using the MILF as proxies.
In the interest of transparency, therefore, we call upon foreign elements involved or interested in the peace process to place their cards on the table, so to speak. What are these possible interests?
Is the US hoping for to be given rights by a Bangsamoro sub-state with its parliamentary system under an MILF Chief Minister beholden to Malaysia? Is this the reason for the inordinate attention that the US has in Mindanao which has seen the frequent visit of American Ambassadors to this part of the country, one of whom even witnessed the drafting of the Comprehensive Agreement in Bangsamoro in Kuala Lumpur?
In the case of Her Majesty’s government, which created the Malaysian Federation after illegally annexing to it a big chunk of the real estate of the Sultanate of Sulu in Borneo, is her interest an attempt to protect her vast economic interests in Sabah by aligning with her former colony to marginalize the Sultanate and its faithful Tausug supporters in the Sulu peninsula by giving physical and political control of the area to Malaysia’s mercenary army led by the MILF?
These are the questions that need to be answered if a settlement to the peace process in Mindanao can move forward in the next administration because today the Filipino people cannot swallow a comprehensive agreement for peace in Mindanao which can only be described as having been drafted in Malaysia, by Malaysians and for the benefit of Malaysians and their foreign partners and mercenaries.
For all and sundry, and we address this particularly to the so-called foreign peaceniks who are allegedly brokering the peace process in the land of promise, the government of the Philippines represented by the next administration (because this one is stopped from proceeding with its dangerous political experimentation in Mindanao having claimed the ARMM to have been a failed experiment) will surely be able to convert the land of promise from a war-torn danger zone to a zone of peace and prosperity by simply enhancing the constitutionally erected autonomous region in Mindanao through the grant of full fiscal autonomy, allowing it to accelerate its infrastructure and social overhead projects. This is of course premised on one important conditionality: the political will, which this administration never had, to disarm and integrate when possible all the wayward elements in the island starting with the MILF, MNLF, BIFF, Abu Sayyaf, the private armies, the NPA and others.
Presidents Cory and Ramos were able to promote a semblance of peace and development in the area through a policy of attraction and diplomacy while President Estrada degraded if not decimated the MILF. All three administrations contributed to the establishment of ARMM which is now run by 10,000 bureaucrats sans the support of foreign interlopers. Today it is a work in progress and in certainly not a failed experiment.
The hope is that the region becomes a land of peace for all its stakeholders – Muslims, Lumads, Christians etc. All working together harmoniously as they do in other parts of Asia.
Yes indeed we do not need visitors in this country to tell us what to do. We are no longer a colony!
Ambassador Romero is the president of the Philippine Council on Foreign Relations. He is a founding officer of the Philippine Ambassadors Foundation Inc.