Miriam Coronel-Ferrer, Chairperson of the Philippines’ Government peace panel for negotiations with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) spoke to Conciliation Resources about the aims and challenges of the Mindanao peace process and reflected on the lessons learned from past peacebuilding efforts. The ongoing peace talks between the Government of the Philippines and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front gained a major breakthrough to end nearly fifty years of fighting in southern Philippines with the signing of the Annex on Normalization on 25 January 2014.
You’re the first female Chair on the Government panel. What was the reaction to your appointment?
Well, of course those working for women's rights were very supportive of the announcement but we did have some initial resistance from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front [MILF]. There was some hesitancy to work with a woman Chair for some perceived cultural reasons but they took up the challenge and we respect them for that.
Can you tell us a bit about your role in the peace process?
After the signing of the Framework Agreement, we had to get down to the brass tacks. We've been working on four annexes, which would hopefully settle all the issues that we could not yet find agreement on. The Framework Agreement represents the set of principles where consensus has arrived but now we have to work on more details and, certainly, that hasn't been very easy. Each and every point had to be discussed thoroughly and compromises had to be found.
Could you briefly describe the current situation in Mindanao?
As far as the conflict between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front is concerned, we have kept the ceasefire over the last two years. We've had zero hostilities. Of course, not to say that there have not been any issues. Some protest on their end, some protest on our end of some possible violation over the ceasefire but these are managed through the mechanisms that we have instituted. A single hostility can displace a whole village if that fighting goes on for several days, then you'd have a whole municipality having to move out of their homes for a time and, indeed, this has happened several times in the past.
There have been serious challenges as well from other armed groups. There is a breakaway faction from the MILF that wants this process to fail and they have been looking for any sign that might indicate a failure in the talks and using that as well to instigate some kind of opposition to the process but they have not really succeeded. They have managed to plant a bomb here and there, and launch very small level attacks on military detachments. But the political platform for them to be able to generate wider support is not there precisely because the negotiations are moving forward.
What is the biggest opportunity for the peace process in Mindanao?
The biggest opportunity is the opportunity to reform the institutions that are now in place and that is, indeed, the natural goal of this process, to be able to institute an autonomous government that will be stronger and more functional. To be able to deliver good governance that will make people feel that the right to self-determination is a right that can be practised through coexistence. And that they are also made up of different groups, different ethnicities, different political groups, men and women, and traditional leaders along with upcoming leaders that grew from the revolutionary movement. So, that kind of opportunity - to be able to provide a channel on which peaceful competition for political power can emerge. Also, of course, certainly, for us, it's a great opportunity to think about a future where there will be less political violence, less guns on the street.
Will this ensure a sustainable process for long-term peace?
Yes, with all the security problems that we're now encountering - criminal activities and extremist groups that are moving in and out of these territories - we hope to put in place a better system to be able to address this through the joint cooperation of the government and the MILF.
How are gender concerns being addressed in the process?
Gender is on the table, it has not been put aside. You will find it in different parts of the text that we have signed and the text that we are still working on. There's opportunity to be able to move things to a higher level as far as protecting women and being able to promote their rights and their participation in all the processes at different levels. At the community level and at the formal level - or what we call track 1 at the governance level.
How do you ensure that the transition of the implementation of the process is inclusive?
It has always been our guidepost, when we came in as the negotiating panel; we had four instructions from the president. Firstly, that everything is within the constitution but taking into account flexibilities in the constitution. Secondly, is to learn from the lessons of the past because this has not been the only negotiation peace process that the country has been engaged in. Thirdly is inclusivity, which means that we have to make sure that there is the support and participation of the different sectors in society and, lastly, transparency by reporting back to the public within the limits of requirements of confidentiality of the process.
What benefit has Conciliation Resources’ involvement brought to the peace process?
Conciliation Resources has been in the country for quite some time but it's only recently that they actually joined the formal track, track 1, when they were invited to the International Contact Group. This happened in late 2009 when the International Contact Group was created to bring in other groups as well. Conciliation Resources was nominated by a group in Davao City with whom it has also been working with. Conciliation Resources has also had some networks with some of the groups in the country, both in Mindanao and elsewhere so that got them into track 1, which is, of course, a very privileged position because then you are part of the whole negotiation process.
What message do you have for others who like yourself are working for peaceful solutions?
It requires a lot of patience. It requires persistence and certainly it's very important that you have your eyes wide open, your feet on the ground and that you do a lot of exploration. It requires a lot of exploring of options. A lot of creativity, both in substance and in language, to be able to sustain a process and to find alternatives. It involves a lot of understanding of the issues on hand and being well equipped to be able to really seriously analyse and to provide all the possible options that can be put on the table. It's difficult but there is always that desire to be able to see the fruition of this process so that we will be able to come closer to a society where everybody can coexist and peacefully compete with each other. The competition will always be there but a competition that is founded on just principles and processes.