Aquino, Murad, and Levinas

The great thing about being trained in philosophy is it has equipped me with conceptual frameworks that help me quickly understand complex events, especially those that may seem naïve or foolish but are actually profoundly groundbreaking and game-changing. This was my experience last Friday when I first heard (read actually – as I saw it first in Twitter) that President Benigno Aquino III traveled to Tokyo, Japan to meet with Chairman Al Haj Murad of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). Being intimately familiar with the Mindanao peace process, I immediately saw the serious implications of the President’s gesture and, for a fleeting moment, I wondered whether President Aquino had lost his mind.

This moment of doubt came and went very fast because right away the Tokyo meeting reminded me of a philosopher named Emmanuel Levinas. I have been reading and teaching the philosophy of this Jewish thinker for twenty five years now, including mentoring seminarians who have chosen to write on his philosophy for their masteral theses. But never had I seen as concrete an illustration of his philosophy as in the encounter between Aquino and Murad. In particular, I was reminded by the emphasis Levinas gave to the Face-to-Face encounter, that moment when human beings see each other as Other – not to be hated, mutilated, or killed, but to be compassionate to, in fact to love and serve.

Two weeks ago, I attended the doctoral dissertation defense of a good friend and philosophy classmate Angelli Tugado, who wrote on “The Proximity of the ‘Third’ as the Ethical Basis for Levinas’s Idea of Culture”, and in her opening statement, she quoted from Levinas: “The third party looks at me in the eyes of the Other—language is justice. It is not that there first be the face, and then the being it manifests or expresses would concern himself with justice; the epiphany of the face qua face opens humanity.”

The above-quoted words capture the essence of the Aquino-Murad encounter. Tokyo was a meeting not just of leaders but of two human beings. While they represent big constituencies and play political roles (the proximity of the Third), in that moment of their encounter, Aquino and Murad became two individuals reaching out in conversation, opening their humanity to each other, and weighing each other’s sincerity and good will. As a veteran negotiator and mediator of many social and policy conflicts, here and abroad, I know there is nothing better to base future agreements and relationships on than the Face-to-Face encounter that Aquino and Murad had in Tokyo.

The Tokyo meeting came at a time when there were already questions about the government’s sincerity and political will in pushing for permanent peace in Mindanao. The government was already delayed in delivering its peace proposal to the MILF. President Aquino was silent about the peace negotiations in his Sona, making many to wonder if there was an impasse. While I have a very high level of trust in the government negotiators (especially its Chair, Dean Marvic Leonen) and in Aquino’s Peace Adviser, Secretary Ging Deles, I was worried too.

The fact is that achieving peace in Mindanao would be difficult. From the Tripoli Agreement in 1976 to the MOA-AD (Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain) fiasco in 2008, the peace process is a long history of betrayals and failures. There have of course been advances that should be appreciated: (a) The 1996 peace agreement with the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), while faced with many implementation issues, has not been abrogated; (b) The MILF has abandoned the goal of separatism and independence, a non-trivial development; and (c) The MOA-AD experience yielded many lessons, including the limitations of what the government could offer in the negotiating table and the importance of consultations with all Mindanao stakeholders, including the so-called “spoilers” (those who have consistently opposed previous peace agreements). On this latter point, in my view, the best possible agreement and the one the government and MILF panels should aim for is that which is also accepted by the “spoilers”.

The Aquino-Murad meeting is a breath of fresh air, a shot in the arm to the peace process. The President’s gesture is not a treasonous act as an unnamed diplomat supposedly called it or an ill-advised move according to one Senator. Tokyo was a pragmatic and sensible attempt to move the process forward by establishing an environment of trust and confidence between the parties.  Leonen, defending the President’s decision to meet with someone who is not his counterpart, said: “The President will meet with any Filipino anywhere in the world, in the planet, especially if he is serious enough to talk about an agenda which is important for the country.”

There are of course tough negotiations ahead. Even for someone like me, who believes constitutional change is good and necessary to address some MILF demands, it is clear that a change in governance systems (e.g. a creation of a sub-state as demanded by the MILF) targeted only at Mindanao or some parts of it have no chance of being accepted by Congress or in a national or Mindanao-wide plebiscite. The better option is an overhaul of our national governance system that allow local governments everywhere in the country to freely affiliate each other in whatever way they want, including up to the level of states. I call this federalism “built from the ground up” and not imposed by legal prescription from above. But this is probably not doable in the next five years, and certainly beyond President Aquino to commit as it requires congressional concurrence and a national plebiscite. The vast powers of the Philippine President however allow the government to offer many concessions in the negotiations. I hope that the MILF, whose negotiators are brilliant and practical idealists, acknowledge the hard facts and negotiate on this basis.

As a Mindanawon, the Mindanao peace process is a personal matter for me. In fact, the Aquino-Murad meeting helped me remember a forgotten childhood memory. When I was growing up in Cagayan de Oro, when I was in grade school in the 1960s, there used to be an apartment block a street away from our house. That block, painted in white (“balay puti”), was occupied by Moro families. Throughout my childhood, a happy one I must say, I was afraid of that house and the people, including children my age, who lived there. There were even a couple of times when my friends and I had stone-throwing fights with our Moro neighbors. I was already a teenager and on my last year of high school when I summoned the courage to approach balay puti and say hello to those neighbors. I have always regretted waiting that long, conscious of the friendships I never had because of my bigotry. But once I had that Face-to-Face encounter, never again did I fear engaging with my Moro brother or sister, and I am definitely the better for it.

A peace agreement that leads to a divided Mindanao and country is not the result we all want.  Indeed, as in all peace negotiations, ultimately, the process should end with what is doable, pushing the envelope yes but not too much that it tears it apart. In the next five years, during Aquino’s term, why don’t we just work together to achieve exactly that? And let us start as Aquino did with Murad, and as I experienced when I was a teenager, by engaging with each other Face-to-Face.

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