MOA on ancestral domain: It’s not over yet

Aug. 11, 2008

By the Policy Study, Publication and Advocacy (PSPA) Program
Center for People Empowerment in Governance (CenPEG)

The Memorandum of Agreement (MoA) on Ancestral Domain
between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic
Liberation Front (MILF) does not automatically bind the Arroyo
government to honor the territorial claim of the Bangsamoro
people in Mindanao, Palawan, and Sulu. If there is any clear
commitment made by the Philippine government based on the
MoA, it is on explicit assurances that under any final accord with
the MILF the property rights and investments of big landowners,
transnational corporations, and foreign powers that are
formalized in a myriad of agreements and treaties will be

As to the ancestral domain, territories and resources, and
authority of the Bangsamoro Juridical Entity (BJE) all of these
are subject to the yet-to-be cobbled Comprehensive Compact due
in November 2009, a plebiscite, and charter change which are
foreseen to be acrimonious and drawn-out in the coming years.

The MoA on Ancestral Domain (see GRP-MILF MoA on
Ancestral Domain
draft-pact-on-Bangsamoro-homeland), a by-product of a series
of peace talks and agreements between the Arroyo government
and the MILF since 2001, was to be signed by both parties on
August 5 in Malaysia where the talks are being hosted by the
Kuala Lumpur government. It was stopped by a temporary
restraining order (TRO) issued August 4 by the Supreme Court
(SC) acting on a petition filed against the MoA by local
executives and politicians in Mindanao.

The MoA was hastily put together under instructions made
to the government panel by Malacanang to come up with an
agreement which the President would show as her “legacy of
peace” during her State-of-the-Nation Address on July 28. A
temporary deadlock in the talks changed all that, however. But
the paper had to be drafted anyway by both parties under pain of
losing the International Monitoring Team (IMT). Malaysia,
which heads the IMT that is overseeing a ceasefire, had
threatened to end the team’s tour of duty on August 31 unless
progress is made in the talks.

The street protests generated by the agreement particularly
in Mindanao this week were inevitable in a peace process
shrouded with secrecy. Although the positions of both
government and MILF on the issues under negotiation have been
well-publicized, the contents of the MoAwere kept under wraps
until a former AFP general privy to the peace talks reportedly
leaked the document to test the waters, so to speak.

Basically, the MoA is a set of consensus points forged
together by the two negotiating panels in the roadmap to peace
that will culminate in the Comprehensive Compact. The next
discussions after the MoA signing will prove to be more
contentious as both sides tackle the specifics of the territorial and
maritime resources claimed by the MILF covering, aside from
the expanded Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao
(ARMM), about 1,000 barangays (villages). Other discussions
are on the mechanics and modalities of the BJE; the final
scheduling of the local plebiscite among peoples including
indigenous peoples and other non-Muslims covered by the
Bangsamoro homeland; and, finally, amending the charter to
establish a new federal system (with the Bangsamoro as a
federated state) and parliamentary government that will be
ratified nationwide in a second plebiscite.

Now that the contents of the MoA are out, with many
pressure groups in Mindanao calling it a “sell-out,” the next
negotiations should anticipate a storm of fireworks and a possible
derailment. The tit-for-tat in the SC dealing on the MoA’s
constitutional implications would be interesting to observe.
Knowing, however, the high court’s well-established deference
to the chief executive’s policy imperatives, it will likely rule in
favor of the government no matter the insurmountable political
backlash it would create.

But should the MoA, in the first place, be considered as a
breakthrough in the Bangsamoro people’s historic struggle for
self-determination? A closer scrutiny of the unsigned agreement
reveals that while the Philippine government pledges to
recognize the ancestral domain claim of the Bangsamoro people
in motherhood principles it appends several conditions. Among
others, the conditions are: First, it exempts territories covered by
“government projects or any other voluntary dealings entered
into by the government and private individuals, corporate
entities, or institutions.” Second, although the BJE has
jurisdiction and control over potential sources of energy
including oil and natural gas, these will remain under the
operation of the central government “in times of national
emergency” or “when public interest so requires.” Third,
although the autonomous Bangsamoro government may engage
in economic and trade relations with other countries, the central
government reserves its jurisdiction on “external defense.”

As formulated, these conditions effectively exempt from the
ancestral domain and BJE authority the mining, forest, and other
resource areas covered by existing laws, executive agreements,
and policies in favor of foreign corporations, local landowners,
and other non-Muslim stakeholders. Likewise, the central
government can always invoke “emergency situation” and
“national interest” to exercise authority over energy resources.

Moreover, the presence of foreign military forces is also
guaranteed in pursuit of the central government’s “external
defense” responsibility. The presence of U.S. troops, special
operations forces, basing facilities, and surveillance systems in
Moro-dominated areas and waters is guaranteed by the Visiting
Forces Agreement (VFA) and other agreements signed secretly
by Arroyo with the U.S. government since 2002 which the MoA
implicitly honors.

Arroyo officials claim that the President aims to sustain the
momentum of the peace process with the MILF until her term
ends in June 2010. Critics and anti-Arroyo opposition groups are
wary, however, that the peace talks are being calibrated to justify
charter change en route to Arroyo’s extending her power as prime
minister under a federal cum parliamentary system that will also
formalize the Bangsamoro homeland as a federated state.
Considering that anti-Arroyo opposition groups are all gears for
the 2010 elections, the Malacanang agenda will likely end up as
another debacle akin to the fate suffered by her two previous

The MILF, on the other hand, views the MoA as a step
forward for its goal of self-determination. Its leaders can always
invoke the general concepts and principles of the MoA on
Ancestral Domain to pursue the MILF’s political goal more so if
they choose to declare unilaterally a separate state later on.

But they should be pragmatic enough to learn from the
mistakes of the MNLF when, its armed strength weakened by
strategic setbacks and factionalism, and abandoned by its foreign
backers, it forged a final peace accord 12 years ago that yielded
neither real autonomy nor effective political authority and
development for the Bangsamoro people. Ever incremental in
their objectives, the MoA for that matter the peace talks with
Arroyo is an incidental part of the MILF’s 50-year jihad that its
leaders declared in 2000. MILF ground forces continue to train
and hold on to their arms knowing that their struggle for self-
determination includes fighting and negotiating.

The strong backlash ignited by the MoA deserves a second
look by the MILF leaders. A lesson that can be drawn is the fact
that the war for self-determination involves not only taking arms
and talking but also a political war to win the broadest support for
the just and historic struggle of the Bangsamoro people. A lot of
hard work needs to be done in this area. #

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