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05 May 2015 - The Mindanao peace process was the focal point of a public briefing by Professor Miriam Coronel-Ferrer, Chair of the Government Peace Panel, in a forum hosted by Consul General Mario De Leon, Jr., held at the Kalayaan Hall last April 24. The briefing for the Filipino community was part of a three-city U.S. tour - including Washington, DC, New York and Los Angeles - that culminated in her being one of the recipients of the 2015 Hillary Clinton Award for Advancing Women in Peace and Security in a ceremony at Georgetown University.    

Consul General De Leon welcomed Professor Coronel-Ferrer at the start of the briefing, which was attended by the Fil-Am Press Club and the Filipino community in New York and New Jersey.

In his remarks, the Consul General praised the tireless efforts of Professor Coronel-Ferrer and the GPH-MILF Peace Panel in bringing about the Framework Agreement and, subsequently, the Comprehensive Agreement on Bangsamoro to bring stability in Mindanao.  This Agreement, if pursued to the end, will benefit countless of Mindanaoans who aspire to re-settle their land with their family without fear of disruption and loss, after having witnessed and suffered decades of unbridled conflict, he added.     

He cited the achievements of Professor Coronel-Ferrer for her internationally-recognized scholarly work and advocacy for peace and conflict resolution, in becoming the Chair of the Government Peace Panel and, lately, in being awarded the 2015 Hillary Clinton Award.

During the briefing that ensued, Professor Ferrer explained that, as far as peace negotiations are concerned, a ceasefire between the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the Government was in place since 1997 and that it was important to preserve that ceasefire. She stated that the Department of Justice is investigating the Mamasapano killings and the axe must fall where it should. “However, Filipinos need to be reminded that over the course of the conflict, hundreds of thousands have been killed on all sides. The latest incident in Mamasapano included the death of 44 Special Action Force (SAF) men, 17 MILF and more from Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF). I believe in attaining justice for this incident, but let’s solve the bigger issue. If we hostage the bigger peace process that’s intended to address the conflict, we are not solving anything. The conflict becomes even more intractable and then the peace process fails,” she added.

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During the open forum and in response to numerous queries on the Mamasapano incident, Professor Coronel-Ferrer underscored anew that there was an existing ceasefire between Government and MILF and the last violent incident was in 2011 before Mamasapano happened. 

When asked to clarify if MILF will gain independence by virtue of the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL), she explained that the action and presence of BIFF elements does not mean peace talks with biggest armed group, the MILF, should be discontinued.  “In the case of MILF, it has 30,000 armed members.  They say they are willing to live peacefully and that they are participating in our society. One foot is inside door, they are willing to enter the door to become normal citizens. They are willing to close down the MILF as an armed force, begin a regular social movement with a clear platform to serve their society, and participate in party-list elections. That’s where they are now. There is need for more trust,” she explained. 

Professor Coronel-Ferrer also addressed some other misconceptions surrounding the BBL such as a separate Bangsamoro police. However, she clarified that in the draft law, the Bangsamoro police is part of the Philippine National Police. 

Consul General De Leon stressed the importance of knowing the BBL in light of some misinformation hovering in social media and mainstream media read by many Filipinos. The first thing a citizen should do is to read the law in order to have an informed reaction, he added.

Professor Coronel-Ferrer lamented that prejudices get ahead of facts and that some Filipinos feel they have more entitlement than other Filipinos whose ancestors lived in those lands or have lived in their own culture. “Historical differences hinder the process. Filipinos need to have a better understanding of history, the Muslim narratives, what has made socio-cultural differences, which is recognized by the Philippine Constitution. The 1987 Constitution provided for two autonomous governments in the country, in the North in the Cordilleras, and in the South, in Muslim Mindanao,” she said.  

When asked to explain the rush to pass BBL in light of the Mamasapano incident, Professor Coronel-Ferrer pointed out that the BBL is bigger than Mamasapano.  She reiterated that this is a process that began years ago to address long–standing issues with the MILF. She noted that major business associations, notably the Muslim Business Council, Makati Business Club and the Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industries, support the passage of the BBL since they see this as beneficial to the country’s development. 

When asked to make a distinction between Government talks with the NDF and MILF, Professor Coronel-Ferrer clarified that in the talks with the NDF, a ceasefire happened last. This meant that both sides were fighting even as they were talking, which did not provide a good environment for the talks. On the other hand, the MILF agreed to stop the armed struggle if political reforms were to be achieved, meaning that negotiations are not just a way to achieve victory through armed struggle, she underlined.

A community member from Davao City opined that in light of the fear stoked by rumors and the media about BBL, the Philippine government should address these rumors and BBL proponents should put extra effort to convince non-Muslim Filipinos in Mindanao that BBL will not provide independence to MILF in Mindanao. She added that confidence-building measures will help Filipinos better understanding and trust for the BBL over time.   

While there were animated and frank exchanges during the open forum, particularly on the Mamasapano incident and the BBL, the Filipino community attendees and the Fil-Am Press Club members expressed satisfaction that the real issues on the Mindanao peace process have been clarified by Professor Ferrer.  END