THE SIGNING of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB) by the Philippine Government (GPH) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) yesterday, is being hailed as “historic” and ushering in the dawn of peace in Muslim Mindanao. In this light, there is understandable questioning and speculation about the implications of the arrest last weekend of spouses Benito Tiamzon and Wilma Austria-Tiamzon — alleged by the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) to be the “No. 1” and “No. 2” of the Communist Party of the Philippines-New People’s Army (CPP-NPA) — to “the other peace” (Philippine Daily Inquirer editorial, March 27); that is, the peace negotiations between the GPH and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP), the umbrella alliance that represents the CPP-NPA and several other national democratic underground mass organizations in the peace talks.
So far, the preponderant voices from both sides are pessimistic.
The Aquino government asserts that the arrests are quite legal and regular, proof positive of the proficiency of state security forces in running after the “enemies of the state.” The GPH claims that the couple are not covered by the Joint Agreement on Safety and Immunity Guarantees (JASIG) under the GPH-NDFP peace talks because of the following: Wilma Austria-Tiamzon jumped bail during her arrest in 1994; both are facing several criminal charges; and Benito Tiamzon used an alias in his safe conduct pass. The GPH has unilaterally declared that the JASIG is inoperative for all those who used aliases because of the failure of the process attempted in 2011 to verify if the persons claimed by the NDFP to be JASIG-protected were really so.
More important, the GPH views the arrests as a major, if not fatal, blow to the viability of an armed movement that government claims is continually dwindling in terms of adherents and whose ideological and political moorings have been undercut by a “daang matuwid” (straight path) government and hefty economic growth figures.
And while the GPH says it continues to keep its door open to the peace talks, it insists that the intransigence and insincerity of the NDFP is what is dooming any hope for the resumption of the peace negotiations which, while not yet officially or technically terminated, have been at an impasse since mid-2011, soon after the reopening of the formal talks under the BS Aquino administration.
The NDFP, for its part, stands pat on its position that the Tiamzon couple’s arrest is illegal and violates the JASIG signed by the two parties in 1995. The two are bona fide NDFP consultants holding documents of identification duly acknowledged by previous GPH Peace Panel heads, Howard Dee and Sylvestre Bello, which act as safe conduct passes giving them immunity from surveillance, arrest, and prosecution while they perform their tasks in the ongoing peace talks.
Ms. Austria-Tiamzon has been publicly known since the Fidel V. Ramos administration as a key participant in the peace process (in fact she was released on her own recognizance as a confidence-building measure for the peace negotiations) and holds a safe conduct pass and is listed under her real name in the list of JASIG-protected persons, a copy of which is held by the GPH. Therefore no other verification process is necessary.
Mr. Tiamzon was in possession of his safe conduct pass under the name Crising Banaag, but this was disregarded and even confiscated by the arresting team. This same name, with the corresponding specific identification number, appears in the list of GPH-acknowledged JASIG-protected holders of documents of identification.
As to the criminal charges the two are facing, the JASIG provides that such charges are held in abeyance while the peace negotiations are ongoing, an arrangement legally recognized by the GPH courts in the cases of other well-known NDFP consultants who are currently out on bail. In many other instances, the mechanism set up by the two Parties to facilitate resolution of the cases had resulted in the withdrawal of charges and dismissal of the case inasmuch as the arrests and detention were usually illegal, charges were trumped up, and evidence fabricated or weak. However this mechanism was unilaterally dissolved by the GPH in June 2012.
The JASIG is a solemn and binding agreement that the GPH cannot just set aside unilaterally and on the basis of its own determination. There are provisions as to how this bilateral agreement shall be terminated. Without the JASIG, the GPH-NDFP peace negotiations could not have taken off and continued despite numerous suspensions and a couple of GPH-initiated terminations.
In the first place, the JASIG was set up by the GPH and NDFP precisely “to facilitate the peace negotiations, create a favorable atmosphere conducive to free discussion and free movement during the negotiations, and avert any incident that may jeopardize the peace negotiations,” learning from the 1986-87 peace negotiations which collapsed when the safety of the negotiators, as well as the process itself, was put in great peril.
At the same time, the integrity and security of the agreement itself was safeguarded with the explicit provision that the JASIG can only be terminated by either Party issuing a written notice of termination to the other Party, and which will only take effect 30 days after receipt of the notice by the other Party. Since no such written notice of termination has so far been issued by either Party, the JASIG remains in full force and effect, binding on the GPH and the NDFP to this moment.
Furthermore, in the event that the JASIG is terminated, the agreement provides that “All immunities acquired by virtue of this Joint Agreement shall remain in full force and effect even after the termination of this Joint Agreement, provided said immunities shall not cover acts which are contrary to the purposes of the peace negotiations and outside and beyond involvement or participation in the peace negotiations.”
Clearly, recent statements by some high government officials that the Tiamzon couple cannot be covered by JASIG protection because the JASIG is no longer in effect because there are no talks are false having no basis in the agreement itself.
But is the NDFP setting the release of the Tiamzon couple as a precondition to resuming the stalled formal peace talks? No, the NDFP is demanding the release of the Tiamzons as a matter of obligation on the part of the GPH, in compliance with the JASIG and other solemn bilateral agreements it has entered into with the NDFP.
In any kind of negotiation, be it a business contract, a labor-management agreement, or a peace treaty, there is nothing more natural, plainly obvious, logical, and commonsensical than for one party to demand of the other party compliance with whatever agreements are entered into. In peace negotiations where smaller agreements form the building blocks toward a final and comprehensive peace agreement, the integrity of the former are essential to the solidity and efficacy of the final agreement. Simply put, how can any party expect the other party to honor its obligations in a final comprehensive agreement when the latter cannot or does not comply with previous smaller agreements?
In the final analysis, what really matters in the peace negotiations is how serious both Parties really are in finding common grounds of cooperation in effecting fundamental reforms needed to eradicate the social, economic and political roots of the armed conflict.
Unfortunately, what we are hearing and seeing in the GPH pronouncement and actions regarding the arrest, continuing detention and prosecution of the Tiamzons is a complete lack of interest if not intent in resuming peace talks with the NDFP.
Published in Business World
March 27, 2014