Tokyo meet produced only atmospherics
President Benigno Aquino III’s penchant for secrecy came to the fore when he sneaked out of the country to meet secretly with the head of the secessionist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) at a small hotel in Tokyo and give the stalled peace talks “a shot in the arm.”
The talks have been locked in a stalemate for nearly 14 years, and the President has come under pressure to deliver on his inauguration promise to bring to “a final closure the armed conflict in Mindanao.”
Negotiations hit a standoff in February when the government failed to respond to the MILF’s proposed peace pact.
Whoever advised Mr. Aquino that a secret meeting with MILF chair Murad Ebrahim on neutral ground outside the country would put the peace talks back on track is now confronted with the incontrovertible fact that the one-hour, 15-minute meeting produced nothing more tangible than atmospherics.
Mr. Aquino is our first head of state to hold a face-to-face summit on nearly equal terms with a Moro secessionist movement leader in 14 years.
He apparently followed the example of his late mother, President Cory Aquino, who met Nur Misuari, head of the then dominant Moro National Liberation Front, in Misuari’s own territory in Jolo in 1986 to try to end the Moro rebellion, which flared up during the Marcos martial law regime.
During Cory’s visit, Misuari put up a parade of the rebel army to welcome her as a show of force. (This reporter covered the visit.) That meeting led to the resumption of the peace talks but not to long-term peace in Mindanao.
Cory Aquino’s way
There were no advance indications that Mr. Aquino would meet Murad in Japan. Unlike her son, Cory was more transparent about her meeting with Misuari. She didn’t shroud the summit with the status of a top state secret.
Malacañang also said the secret Tokyo meeting was meant to show support for the peace talks from the “highest level.” Mr. Aquino had sought a meeting with Murad since late June.
According to Marvic Leonen, head of the government peace panel, the President and Murad agreed to “fast-track” negotiations. He said the implementation of any agreement had to happen during the term of the President.
Leonen reiterated what was already well known—that Mr. Aquino has made the resolution of the Moro and communist insurgencies a high priority of his administration.
Without giving details, Leonen said the meeting “consisted of a frank and candid exchange of their views about the frames of the continuing peace talks and some possible approaches that the parties can take to bring about a peaceful settlement.”
He added that Mr. Aquino presented “a pragmatic and principled view” (another empty phrase) on how the talks could move forward and that Murad also presented “a principled and certain pragmatic realities in terms of the negotiations and in terms of our country.”
These are all puffery.
Meeting of equals?
Leonen said there was “no secret deal.” Ghadzali Jaafar, the MILF political affairs chief, was not as effusive as Leonen. Jafaar called the summit “a fruitful meeting.”
The talks raised questions among knowledgeable circles in diplomacy that in meeting Murad, Mr. Aquino implicitly recognized the MILF as an autonomous entity and accorded Murad the status of head of state. At least a substate or state within the Philippine republic.
Questions were also raised over why the meeting had to be held in another country and not in the Philippines. It gave the impression that the rebel movement had gained from the encounter, with Murad seen as meeting on equal status with the President, outside the jurisdiction of the Republic.
No more separate state
It is strange that it was Leonen who claimed that it could not be construed that the meeting amounted to an official recognition of the MILF’s separatist aims.
He said the MILF was no longer a separatist group. “They are no longer a secessionist group because their proposal does not include independence any more,” he explained.
“They are not asking to be a separate state. And, therefore, the implications that you are probably imagining are no longer there,” he added.
Being the head of the government panel, Leonen cannot be making claims on behalf of the MILF. He added: “The MILF has met with businessmen in Makati and civil society, and they say that their agenda is no longer to separate from the Republic of the Philippines. Their proposal is that they be considered Filipino citizens but with Bangsamoro national identity.”
What does the MILF say about these statements. Can’t they speak for themselves?
Hurriedly set up
Mr. Aquino met Murad with a delegation of senior Cabinet members, including Teresita Quintos-Deles, the presidential peace adviser. Murad was accompanied by some members of the MILF’s central committee.
The secretary of foreign affairs was not represented. The obvious reason is that the government was sending the message that the absence of the secretary signaled it was not officially dealing with the MILF as a separate state.
But why should Murad need the presence of the secretary of foreign affairs when the President, who directs foreign policy, was already meeting him?
Despite these nuances, the indications suggest that the meeting was hurriedly set up. Most of all, there are no signs there were ample prior preparations. It appeared to be an ad hoc decision prompted by impulse.
The secrecy surrounding the Tokyo trip left the impression that the drama of secrecy would be the big push needed to revive the stalemated talks.
Hard work needed
No one can discount the good intentions behind the decision to meet Murad. Indeed, it’s fair to say that most everybody in the country wish to put an end to the war in Mindanao.
But secret diplomacy and spur-of-the-moment decisions are not the miraculous approaches to a peace pact.
After three formal meetings of the panels, the Mindanao peace process has achieved only modest gains under the year-old Aquino administration.
There’s much to say for secret, quiet diplomacy to ensure the success of diplomatic initiatives.
One of the most famous examples of this method of diplomacy was the secret trip of US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to China in July 1971, resulting in his historic talks with Premier Zhou Enlai.
Their talks led to discussions on rapprochement between China and the United States on issues that had divided them over many years.
Kissinger’s visit, famous for the secrecy that surrounded it, was preceded by months of back-breaking preparation and complex diplomatic homework involving other intermediary countries.
None of these essential conditions of arduous, toilsome diplomatic ground-laying can be found in the secret diplomatic initiative of President Aquino. Its success requires painstaking hard work—not a task for a lazy person.
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