Search for an Honest Broker in Mindanao
by Manuel L. Quezon III
Our traditional allies in the Mindanao peace process are Indonesia and Libya, Muslim nations that, however, have long established ties of friendship (in the case of Indonesia) and an appreciation of the secular framework of our republic (in the case of Libya). Our traditional antagonist, on the other hand, is Malaysia, whose birth as a nation the Philippines and Indonesia opposed because of the two nation’s claims concerning North Borneo.
The Sabah question led the Philippines to support Indonesia’s policy of Konfrontasi with Malaysia and the botched effort by the Marcos administration to provoke Sabah’s secession from Malaysia led, in turn, to Malaysian support for the Moro secessionist movement.
When Libya brokered a peace deal during the Marcos years with the MNLF (more interested in a Moro homeland on secular, ethnic lines), Malaysia lost a useful instrument to keep the Philippine government busy fighting secessionists at home, which prevented a revival of Philippine efforts to annex Sabah.
But then a split took place within the Moro nationalist ranks. Another bloc emerged, organized along Islamic lines — the MILF. And so, the Philippine government has had to pursue the peace process in Mindanao on two fronts: with the MNLF, which has obtained observer status in the Organization of Islamic Countries, and with the MILF, which has been less successful in obtaining a similar level of recognition from the OIC.
This provided an opportunity for Malaysia — and helps explain the closeness between the MILF and the Malaysian government. MILF chief peace negotiator Mohagher Iqbal told Newsbreak that as far as his organization’s concerned, Malaysia’s “irreplaceable,” and “a vital partner.” Political Science professor Rizal G. Buendia wrote some years back, in “The GRP-MILF Peace Talks: Quo Vadis? “ that “While the MILF is currently engaged in peace negotiations as the only ‘peaceful, civilized, and democratic way of solving the Bangsamoro problem’, it repeatedly emphasizes that independence is the main agenda and framework for the formal talks. ‘There is no point to proceed if the negotiations will not lead to independence’, declared the MILF negotiators. The sustained effort towards gathering popular support for a UN- and OIC-supervised referendum, following the East Timor’s (now Timor-Leste) case, is a move to achieve independence using the institution and process of democracy. For the MILF, the conduct of a referendum is one of the options or mechanisms that it can utilize outside of the peace talks. It is the exercise of the ‘plebiscitary right to secede’.”
Viewed from the perspective of the Philippines’ traditional allies in the peace process — Indonesia and Libya — it’s interesting to note that the MILF sees no reason to introduce Indonesia as a facilitator in the ongoing peace talks as a substitute for Malaysia. The closeness of the MILF to Malaysian authorities has obviously influenced this view, because Malaysia is wary of Indonesia, whose Kalimantan provinces comprise the largest portion of Borneo.
And Malaysia itself has demonstrated that it prefers to monopolize dealings with the MILF. It rejected the idea that USIP, an American Federal institution, getting involved in the RP-MILF negotiations. Cultivating the MILF prevents Malaysia from being frozen out of any potential resolution of the decades-old Moro rebellion in Mindanao.
Malaysia’s national interest requires its ultimate aim to be the protection of its sovereignty over Sabah, with its vast natural resources and relatively low population. It is not in Malaysia’s interest to have a situation where peace is established, if it results in a Moro government not friendly to Malaysia, or at least susceptible to its influence.
Just recently, the Malaysian government announced that another part of Borneo, Sarawak has been identified as the country’s future rice bowl. The Asia Sentinel reports that nearly half of Sarawak’s territory has been earmarked for transformation into rice paddies. Malaysia’s vital strategic interest in protecting its Borneo territories has therefore increased, adding the dimension of food security.
A buffer zone, composed of an autonomous Muslim Mindanao region where the influence of the Philippine government can be held at bay, is what serves Malaysia’s interests, and not necessarily peace. Malaysia will support peace talks if their objective is in harmony with the country’s self-interest: any deviation from that, and Malaysia might much rather prefer to keep things in a state of perpetual negotiation. This means that if it needs to, in a sense, shake things up by diplomatic posturing, it will do so, regardless of how this affects the Philippines.
Malaysia’s announced it’s prepared to withdraw from the RP-MILF peace process and, by so doing, has jolted our government into frantically appealing for Malaysia to stay involved. An appeal echoed by the MILF, for obvious reasons: the MILF’s ultimate ace in the hole is the threat of resuming active hostilities; Malaysia’s card to play is that ditching the peace process will confront the Philippine government with a resumption of fighting, which complicates its relationship with the United States, and ongoing efforts to develop Mindanao.
And it’s well worth pondering, at this point, that the advantages Malaysia and the MILF enjoy at present are entirely the doing of our government. The Philippines brought Malaysia into the peace process; it contributed to strengthening the MILF’s bargaining position by accepting that Malaysia would serve as the MILF’s patron in the peace talks. Our government, trying to please everyone, pleases no one and hasn’t brought peace any closer after several years of increasing Malaysian influence in the peace talks.