Q+A: “It’s not going to be easy” to bring peace to Mindanao - Philippines chief negotiator

by Alex Whiting | @AlexWhi | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 12 June 2014 21:13 GMT

Members of a Muslim group participate in a unity walk before the start of a program to mark the upcoming signing of the final agreement between the Philippine government and Muslim rebels in Manila March 26, 2014. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco

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The government's war with the southern rebel group Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) has lasted more than 45 years and killed about 150,000 people

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Miriam Coronel-Ferrer, chair of the Philippines government negotiating team, signed a peace deal in March this year officially ending one of the world’s longest and deadliest conflicts. She was the first woman to both chair a negotiating team and sign a peace deal.

The war with the southern rebel group Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) has lasted more than 45 years, killed about 150,000 people and, since 2000, displaced 3.5 million people.

The two sides want to set up an autonomous region, to be known as "Bangsamoro", in the south of the mainly Roman Catholic country before President Benigno Aquino steps down in 2016, giving the Muslim-dominated area greater political powers and more control over its resources.

Coronel-Ferrer spoke to Thomson Reuters Foundation about her hopes and fears for the region on the sidelines of a summit on ending sexual violence in conflict taking place in London.

Q: Why do you think it’s important to have more women involved in peace negotiations?

A: It’s very important that you have women there who are aware of ... the particularities of women affected by the conflict and the whole gender agenda, so they can put it in the substance of the agreements as well as the process, to really make the process participatory.

Q: It’s very rare for a woman to get onto a negotiating team. How did it happen for you?

A: It had to do with the fact that I have been involved in the process, both as an academic and as an advocate outside the classroom ... My research has been largely on democratisation and conflict resolution (Coronel-Ferrer is professor of political science at the University of the Philippines Diliman). In the past we would give the government proposals.

Q: What are your main fears for this peace process?

A: It’s not going to be easy. We know that. It has a very complicated history and a complicated context.

There are other armed groups in the area, some of them espousing extremist ideology, and we’ll have to win them over and make sure that they are not able to do any harm to the communities and to the process of instituting a new governmental party.

The area is made up of different ethnic groups, different classes, different religions, and the proliferation of firearms is a big problem. This means that we have to do many things to make this work, all at the same time and in a very short time. Our aim is to finish by 2016 when the term of the president ends.

(We) are not sure if the next government or administration will continue the same policy, so it is very important for us to be able to put the foundation for a peaceful community and a good (Bangsomoro) government in place by 2016.

Q: What’s your main hope?

A: My main hope is that we get that kind of broad consensus from the public in Mindanao and the whole country because without that kind of consensus, things become more difficult.

We need that consensus to convince political leaders in all camps and at all levels that this is the way to go.

Q: What’s made these talks successful?

A: I think, one, our negotiating partner (MILF) has become more pragmatic. Secondly, they trust the government, and third there are very good people involved in the process and they are people who are reform oriented, which means this is something intended not just for short-term political goals, but for real change to happen.

I am very happy that a lot of women have been able to come in (on the government side), take leading roles in the different components of the implementation (of the peace deal) and these are women we know can deliver the goods to everyone because they have that capability and expertise and understanding.

The MILF also have their nominees, and unfortunately there are not too many women there. That is why we always made sure that we have many women at our end so that jointly there would be women working at that level.

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