MANILA — The engagement of The Asia Foundation in the on-and-off peace negotiations between the Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) signals the further deepening involvement of the United States in the Mindanao conflict.
Announced in a news release dated Nov. 13, The Asia Foundation’s involvement in the GRP-MILF peace negotiations will take the form of membership in the International Contact Group (ICG), which is “tasked with supporting the next stage of peace negotiations between the Philippine government and the MILF to end conflict in Mindanao.” Asia Foundation, the news release states, “will network with stakeholders in the negotiation, coordinate with the facilitator (Malaysia) to provide research input, and give feedback and advice for the peace process.”
US involvement in the GRP-MILF peace negotiations began in 2003 through the Philippine Facilitation Project (PFP) launched by the US Institute of Peace (USIP).
The USIP is an institute governed by a “bipartisan” board of directors whose members are appointed by the US president and confirmed by the US Senate, and four ex-officio members: the secretaries of state and defense, the president of the National Defense University, and the president of the institute.
In an 2007 report, “Toward Peace in the Southern Philippines: A Summary and Assessment of the Philippine Facilitation Project, 2003-2007”, G. Eugene Martin and Astrid Tuminez – PFP’s executive director and senior research associate, respectively – wrote that the US Department of State in 2003 engaged the USIP to facilitate a peace agreement between the GRP and the MILF.
“The State Department felt that the Institute’s status as a quasi-governmental… player would allow it to engage the parties more broadly than an official government entity could,” Martin and Tuminez wrote. “To accomplish its mandate, USIP launched the Philippine Facilitation Project…”
The PFP organized and facilitated a series of workshops, for members of both the GRP and MILF peace panels, on ancestral domain, which was first discussed only in 2004 but even then was emerging as the most contentious issue in the negotiations. These initiatives by the PFP produced what became the highly contentious Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MoA-AD).
Ancestral Domain and Deadlocks in the Talks
The GRP had consistently insisted that areas to be covered by the Bangsamoro Juridical Entity, the name of the territory that the MILF wanted to create, other than the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) should be subjected to a plebiscite. This repeatedly led to an impasse in the peace negotiations with the group. The impasse was broken only in November 2007, when the GRP and the MILF reached an agreement defining the land and maritime areas to be covered by the proposed BJE. Things seemed to be looking up after that, prompting lawyer Eid Kabalu, MILF spokesman, to make media statements to the effect that they expected a final agreement to be signed by mid-2008. But all hopes for forging a peace pact between the GRP and the MILF were dashed in December that year, when the peace talks hit a snag following the government’s insistence that the ancestral domain issue be settled through “constitutional processes” – a phrase which, according to MILF chief negotiator Mohagher Iqbal, had been inserted into the agreement without their consent.
The December 2007 deadlock on ancestral domain was followed by a series of clashes between government troops and the MILF, as well as a partial pullout of the Malaysian contingent from the International Monitoring Team (IMT), which is tasked with monitoring the implementation of agreements related to the peace talks, as well as development projects in the areas of conflict.
Even as the GRP-MILF conflict showed signs of re-escalation, however, both sides were talking about the possibility of signing an agreement on ancestral domain sometime in 2008.
Eventually, the series of ancestral domain workshops organized and facilitated by the PFP produced a draft Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MoA-AD) outlining the scope of the proposed BJE. The ARMM was to serve as the core of the new administrative region. The residents of the other areas sought to be covered by the BJE were to vote in a plebiscite sometime this year.
The MoA-AD was supposed to be signed by the GRP and the MILF on Aug. 5, 2008, but the Supreme Court a day before issued a temporary restraining order on its signing following a petition by North Cotabato Vice Gov. Emmanuel Piñol, supported by another petition filed by Zamboanga City Mayor Celso Lobregat and two congressmen. The Supreme Court later ruled that the MoA-AD is unconstitutional.
The non-signing of the MoA-AD gave rise to a re-escalation of armed confrontations between government troops and the MILF in Lanao del Norte, North Cotabato, and Maguindanao –- provinces known to be strongholds of the MILF. Following the outbreak of renewed hostilities, the government ordered a manhunt for Abdurahman Macapaar a. k. a. Commander Bravo, Ameril Ombra Cato, and Alim Pangalian – who were dubbed as “rogue MILF commanders” and leaders of “lost commands”.
The re-escalated conflict led to the displacements of hundreds of thousands in Mindanao.
Enter Asia Foundation
On Sept. 15 this year, the GRP and MILF panels agreed on the formation of an ICG that will provide “critical support” to the peace negotiations in the wake of the escalating conflict. This is where The Asia Foundation comes in.
The Asia Foundation’s entry into the ICG, however, is merely a new phase in its involvement in the Mindanao conflict.
“For more than 30 years, (the) Asia Foundation has led successful programs in Mindanao and has identified peace and development there as among the highest priorities for the Philippines,” reads its Nov. 13 news release. “Through its resident office in Manila, opened in 1954, and its satellite offices in Cotabato City and Zamboanga City, the Foundation has been working with local governments, civil society organizations, and private sector partners throughout Mindanao. The Foundation’s programs address issues related to conflict and development in Mindanao and building constructive relationships between Manila and Mindanao. Joining the ICG will enable the Foundation to play a direct, landmark role in the formal GRP-MILF peace process.
“The Asia Foundation supports a variety of activities, drawing on its long-standing relationships with many actors throughout Mindanao, and utilizes its on-the-ground presence to work toward peace and development in the region.”
Founded in 1951 as the Committee for Free Asia, The Asia Foundation “was unquestionably a product of the Cold War,” according to Japanese-American writer and researcher Kimberly Gould Ashizawa. In her 2006 essay “The Evolving Role of American Foundations in Japan: An Institutional Perspective,” Ishikawa cites a 1983 report by the Congressional Research Service (CRS), which states that The Asia Foundation “was an ostensibly private body… sanctioned by the National Security Council and, with the knowledge of congressional oversight committees, supported with covert indirect (Central Intelligence Agency) funding.”
“In 1954, when it became apparent that a more long-term strategy to promote democratic development was needed, the Committee reorganized itself into a public charity called (the) Asia Foundation. The CIA remained the primary source of funds, but the anticommunist rhetoric diminished and the programming began to focus on indigenous needs in Asia and initiatives on education, civil society, and international exchanges.”
Gabriel Kaplan, who helped form the Committee for Free Asia that later became The Asia Foundation, had work closely with CIA operative Edward Lansdale in the US efforts to put Ramon Magsaysay to the Philippine presidency.
The CIA in the Philippines and Elsewhere
Roland Simbulan, a professor of development studies and public management at the University of the Philippines (UP) in Manila and an expert on Philippine-US relations, is instructive in his study of the CIA’s historical role in Philippine and international politics. In his 2000 paper, “The CIA’s Hidden History in the Philippines,” Simbulan writes that:
“Doing covert action that undermines Philippine national sovereignty and genuine democracy in order to prop up the tiny pro-US oligarchical minority that has cornered most of the wealth in their poor country is what the CIA is all about and is the real reason for its existence. It is no longer just the collection and analysis of foreign intelligence which is officially its mandate under the US National Security Act of 1947 that created the CIA.
“The CIA in the Philippines has engaged in countless covert operations for intervention and dirty tricks particularly in Philippine domestic politics…”
In the same paper, Simbulan mentions his 1996 interview with former CIA agent Ralph McGehee and other former CIA operatives assigned to the Manila station – the main CIA station in Southeast Asia – who, he said, confirmed to him that The Asia Foundation was among several agencies, including the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), through which CIA funds were channeled ostensibly for civic projects.
US Economic Interests
Moreover, the officers and trustees of The Asia Foundation — led by its chairman, Michael Armacost, the former US ambassador to the Philippines — are a mix of leaders and individuals representing American political and economic interests.
The involvement of a group that represents US corporate and economic interests underscores the continuing attractiveness of Mindanao to foreign business interests. As it is, Mindanao is one of the key areas of US investments in the Philippines, with the US government pouring in much of its aid money, through the USAid and such initiatives as the Growth with Equity in Mindanao, to identify areas of investments in the region. (Bulatlat.com)
Alexander Martin Remollino November 14, 2009
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