Miriam Coronel-Ferrer: Forging peace with grace | Inquirer News

Miriam Coronel-Ferrer: Forging peace with grace

/ 05:36 AM September 17, 2023

Miriam Coronel-Ferrer

Miriam Coronel-Ferrer

Miriam Coronel-Ferrer, who will be conferred in November the Ramon Magsaysay Award for her efforts in peacebuilding, belongs to a generation that witnessed the birth pains of a restored democracy after 14 years of tyranny.

She was then in her mid-20s when she took a keen interest in government’s efforts—then on the watch of President Corazon Aquino and later her successor Fidel Ramos—to reach out to the Moro and communist insurgencies that were spawned by repression under the Marcos dictatorship.


This fascination with the peace process, at a time when the country was still nursing its wounds from almost two decades of conflict, led to Ferrer devoting her academic and social work to peace and conflict studies.


As she had observed, the peace process evidently entailed tough work—from the time Corazon Aquino first reached out to the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) in 1986, until Ramos secured a peace deal with the secessionist group about a decade later, followed by succeeding efforts by President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III to negotiate peace, this time with the MNLF’s breakaway group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

When Noynoy Aquino asked her to join—and eventually lead—the peace negotiations with the MILF, Ferrer brought grace and empathy to the negotiating table.


In 2014, the government and the separatist group were able to forge at last a comprehensive peace agreement, paving the way for the establishment of an autonomous Bangsamoro region. (See related story in this page)

‘They’ll hate you back’

Ferrer abides by a simple rule through that complex process: “You need to have empathy for the cause. If you don’t like or if you hate the other party, it shows, and they will hate you back.”

On Aug. 31, Ferrer was named among this year’s recipients of the 65th Ramon Magsaysay Awards, Asia’s premier prize that celebrates greatness of spirit and transformative leadership.

In choosing the 64-year-old peace negotiator, the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation (RMAF) recognized her “deep, unwavering belief in the transformative power of nonviolent strategies in peacebuilding,” and her “unstinting devotion to the agenda of harnessing the power of women in creating a just and peaceful world.”

The award comes nine years after she made history as the world’s first female chief negotiator to sign a peace accord with a rebel group.

But at that time, many balked at the thought of a woman leading the peace talks with what was then the biggest armed challenger to the Philippine government.

‘Don’t box us’

Ferrer said this was the problem in most peace processes around the world.

A study by the Council on Foreign Relations showed that from 1992 to 2019, only three in 10 peace negotiations worldwide included women mediators.

Even when they are included, women are often “stuck with women’s issues when what you really want to do is deal with the hard stuff,” Ferrer said.

“That’s what we want to break: yes, we are mediators who bring in the women’s perspective, but don’t box us only in women’s issues,” she said.

Ferrer noted that this is where the Philippines became a pioneer. Not only was she the lead negotiator, but three of the five signatories on the government’s peace panel were also women.

She believes that the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro, which formed the basis of the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL) eventually signed by Aquino’s successor, President Rodrigo Duterte, would not have taken its current form without their input.


The agreement includes, among others, such provisions on women’s rights as “meaningful political participation” and “lawful employment.”

Not everyone appreciated the agreement, Ferrer said in retrospect. She remembers the most difficult test to the peace deal being the Mamasapano killings of Jan. 25, 2015—when 44 Special Action Forces troopers pursuing terrorists in the town of Mamasapano, Maguindanao, died in the hands of Islamic militants, several of whom were members of the MILF.

Many thought the law was dead in the water after that incident. Ferrer and then Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process Teresita Quintos Deles were summoned to a congressional inquiry where they were typecast as “weak negotiators who sold the country to the Moros.

Igbal cracked a joke

I was called a ‘theoretical academic who did not know realpolitik …. In fact, I was called a dumb bitch,” Ferrer recalled in another interview.

She credits President Aquino for being “steadfast and defend[ing] the whole process.”

In the course of the peace negotiations, everyone, including the MILF, had to make compromises or “creative solutions,” Ferrer said.

Much of the work was on the question of language, she said—“finding the right words, [to] put it in a way that does not create doubts or fear [among] the stakeholders.”

She became attuned as well to body language, paying close attention if the other party had their arms close to their chest or if they were sitting comfortably.

There was a time, Ferrer recalled, when the “usually poker-faced Mr. Iqbal”—referring to then MILF peace panel chair and now Bangsamoro minister for education Mohagher Iqbal—cracked a joke, “and you know that things are [proceeding] in a really good way.”

When they were discussing which constituted Bangsamoro waters, Ferrer said Iqbal told her that he was “not going to call you my counterpart anymore because you are now my partner in implementation.”

“I told him, if we were in Bangsamoro waters, you could say we are now in the same boat.”

“So long as it is not the Titanic,” he replied.

Ferrer believes the peace deal succeeded because both parties “showed respect and had the perspective that any agreement must be based on justice and dignity for all concerned.”

Finding the ‘core’

One of the major breakthroughs in the agreement, she said, was when the government agreed to legitimize the term “Bangsamoro.”

“This was very important to them because it was an identity-based conflict,” she said. “This was the core of their own narrative, of their own resistance.”

Because of the peace deal with the MILF on her watch, Ferrer has often been invited by the United Nations as well as other governments also in the middle of their own peace negotiations—like Myanmar, Palestine, and East Timor—to share the Philippines’ best practices.

“That’s our contribution to the world, our process,” she said. “That’s why it’s a big responsibility to make sure this process is fully implemented.”

While Ferrer still keeps in touch with the Bangsamoro leadership, she tries to keep her distance on how they implement the BOL.

“My attitude is that this is something that now belongs to them,” she said.

Ferrer remains hopeful that the dream of a peaceful Mindanao—both in the everyday and in the broader political sense—could be fully realized.

“There are some basic elements on how to define peace—well-being, peaceful coexistence and human security,” she said. “Peace is like the umbrella because it puts together all these elements. And if some are not there, it cannot be real peace.”

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