Q and A with MILF chair Al Haj Murad Ebrahim: “Within this year we will start building our political party”

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By Carolyn O. Arguillas, Mindanews and VERA Files

MILF chair Al Haj Murad Ebrahim. (Toto Lozano)

DARAPANAN, Sultan Kudarat, Maguindanao – The May 13 synchronized national, regional and local elections marked the Moro Islamic Liberation Front’s first foray into electoral politics, albeit only partly, as a “testing ground,” as Al Haj Murad Ebrahim, MILF chair described it.

“The 2013 election was a testing ground because officially, we did not participate in the elections. We were just gauging,” said Murad, who assumed the chairmanship of the organization ten years ago, in July 2003, after MILF chair Salamat Hashim passed away due to illness.

As part of the “testing,” the MILF last year encouraged its members to register during the general re-registration in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao. It also urged the registered voters among its members to vote for candidates supportive of the peace process. And for the first time, campaign posters and tarpaulins lined the main road to its camp.

“We were just gauging. We saw that the people are still keen on the words of the organization (MILF). They’re listening to us,” he said.

The MILF will be faced with two electoral exercises towards the establishment of the “Bangsamoro,” the new autonomous political entity that would replace the ARMM by June 30, 2016: the plebiscite on the Bangsamoro Basic Law and the election of its first set of officials.

Murad discussed the May 13 polls, the peace process, the political party they will set up and the 2016 elections during an interview by MindaNews’ Carolyn O. Arguillas four days after the May 13 polls.

Murad spoke in mixed English and Pilipino. The portions in Pilipino have been translated to English.

Excerpts

Q: Some say the election was a preview of what’s gonna happen in the plebiscite or in the setting up of the Bangsamoro. Did that experience scare you?
A: We’re quite happy that at least the result of the election in both local and national level, the administration candidates dominated. So I think there will be no reason for the government not to push through with the processes in the negotiation when they have .. majority (in) Congress.

Q: So the victory of the Liberal Party, the Presidents’ party, is an advantage for the peace process?
A: We hope there will be an advantage because we are relying much on the sincerity and the capability of the government to implement the process.

Q: Another comment is that the election showed there is no MILF vote because rightly or wrongly, the MILF is perceived to have been supportive of Tucao Mastura but Mastura and his party did not win,
A: Not all the MILF supported Tucao Mastura. There are those who voted also for the other side. Actually we did not endorse a candidate so we gave members free will on who they want, who can help in the peace process. Not everyone in the MILF voted because there are those who are not registered voters.

Q: But many registered last year?
A: Yes.

Q: In preparation for this years’ election?
A: The preparation is actually for the plebiscite (on the Bangsamoro). We encouraged them to register in preparation for the plebiscite.

Q: So there was a mandate from the MILF leadership for members to register?
A: Yes. We encouraged them.

Q: Speaking of plebiscite, you still have three annexes to the Framework Agreement that need to be completed. In April the panels said they would resume talks after the elections but in the meantime they were going to exchange notes. Have they been exchanging notes?
A: We are still awaiting updates because in the last meeting, I think as per information of the facilitator, the government panel promised to send their new position to the facilitator but we’re thinking because of the elections both in Malaysia and the Philippines, this could be the reason why until now there is no word..

Q: Did you send the President a congratulatory note? Governor Mangudadatu? Are you confident that Mangudadatu would support the Framework Agreement to its completion?
A: Well, judging from his statements before the election, he expressed support to the Framework Agreement. Actually even during the campaign period, he said he’ll be very supportive of the Framework Agreement. In fact, he also thanked the MILF for the pronouncement of neutrality in the election.

Q: The other governors in the ARMM — Tan, Adiong, Akbar and Sahali — you would have no problems there because they’re Liberal Party members?
A: We are banking on the President. We are expecting that those in the Liberal Party will toe the line of the President.

Q: But they will toe the line of the President if it’s still this year. Remember you said that in your talk with the President in Japan (on Aug. 4, 2011), he said that after the first half of his term he will be a lameduck President. You are confident that because the Liberal party is going to get majority of the seats in Congress, that the law that will be passed after the Transition Commission drafts the Bangsamoro Basic Law would be passed smoothly?
A: Well that is our expectation but you know politics in the Philippines … We are really banking on the statement of the elected officials expressing their support of the Framework Agreement and also of the President.

Q: In Maguindanao, the peace process was an election issue, It wasn’t an election issue before,
A: What is good is that almost all the candidates were using their support for the Framework Agreement as platform of their campaign. I think because they saw the overwhelming public support (for the Agreement) so they were hoping they could get the people’s votes.

Q: By candidate you mean both administration and opposition?
A: As far as the MILF is concerned, we appealed to the general public, to the voters from MILF, that if you’re going to vote, that they will select the candidates who will help and support the Framework. I think they followed that.

Q: We only have 37 months left to June 30, 2016 and that’s a very short period considering the delays. The possible best case scenario is that you have only one year for transition. Is that enough when you were earlier asking for one year pre-transition and six years transition?
A: What is really bothering us is the timeframe. We’ve been saying that time is ticking away so hopefully within 2013 or 2014 when the Basic Law is drafted, we still hope the Transition Authority would be set up so that would give us at least more than one year. We know this is a very short time considering we had (earlier) been opting for six years.

Q: And one year pre-transition.
A: What the other side is saying is that beyond the President’s term, the next President may not be as supportive, so we are hoping that we can still have at least the minimum of one year transition.

Q: Given a very short transition period, say one year, then the election by May 2016, considering the experience of past elections and the 2013 elections where money was a big factor, network was a big factor, the command vote was a factor, you will be wading into this political arena that you actually want changed, this environment where compromises will have to be made
A: We understand the difficulty.

Q: and your candidates might not even win
A: That can happen but then our focus now is how we are going to consolidate our people in order to prepare (so) we can be assured of success in the 2016 election. We are now starting to formulate strategies hoping that the peace process will move forward.

Q: What are these strategies? Are these a result of what happened in this election?
A: The experience in the last election can contribute. But one thing we are (discussing) very (intently is) whether MILF itself will be converted into a political party or we will establish our own political party

Q: Shouldn’t you be starting now? It’s three years to the next election
A: Actually we have already formed groups to draw out the strategies

Q: What would be the party name? MILF party?
A: None yet. Maybe not. It could be another name.

Q: Offhand, what would be its possible name?
A: It will contain the term “Bangsamoro”

Q: And you will field only candidates for the regional or also the local?
A: We will see. I think our focus would be regional because we view it as the continuation of the transition mechanism.

Q: If the experience this year did not scare you, definitely whether you’ll form a political party or you align yourself with a bigger political party, you will have to be faced with the situation where politics not just in Maguindanao, not just in the ARMM but in the entire Philippines really basically involves the things that you would not ideally engage in
A: That is why we ask that in the Basic Law we can at least gradually change the system because unless you change the system, we don’t see a future in the electoral process. We observed that the 3Gs (guns, goons, gold) still dominate. So we understand that the struggle to change the system will not be an easy task. Change cannot be abrupt. That’s why if we are able to join the government in 2016, we will consider that an extension of the transition mechanism

Q: So you’re saying that even if the BTA (Bangsamoro Transition Authority) is only one year, you have to hopefully ensure that you will be entrenched in 2016?
A: Yes.

Q: How will you do that? Are we going to see you as the next trapo of this generation? I mean the Bangsamoro political party?
A: Like I said, we will be striving to be entrenched in 2016 so we can continue the transformation process.

Q: By then President Aquino would be bowing out of office and as you said you are not certain if the next President would be as supportive of the peace process. It is also likely that if you field candidates in 2016, there’s a possibility that your candidates will lose. And this is a new system, because this will be a parliamentary system, right?
A: Parliamentary, ministerial. The struggle would be by district. The candidates fielded would be by district. That’s why we have to adopt effective strategies to ensure by 2016 , we will be entrenched, that we can get the majority.

Q: But if I am the Liberal Party or the UNA, I will tell you there is no MILF vote because the candidates perceived to be supported by you did not win. Isn’t that going to be a problem on the part of the MILF, that you have no command vote?
A: The 2013 election was a testing ground because officially, we did not participate in the elections. We were just gauging. We saw that the people are still keen on the words of the organization (MILF). They’re listening to us.

Q: But it’s still the machinery that voted
A: Yes. That’s why we have to… you have to establish (the party) and adopt the strategies. The people will be supportive. We also need to ensure no cheating will happen. Of course (the influence of) money is still there but you have to minimize. We will show how to minimize.

Q: So n 2016, you’ll be wading into this political environment where the 3Gs still dominate. You only have one G.
A: (Laughs). We will struggle that (the 3Gs) will not be the basis in 2016.

Q: Are we going to see within the Bangsamoro a transformation of the electoral process?
A: We are hoping

Q: Given the present situation, you sound so optimistic.
A: At least we can start from the Transition Authority. We can already start reforming and then if we have a chance by 2016, we can continue the transformation process

Q: What if you lose in 2016?
A: We will cross the bridge when we reach there. We will do our best.

Q: Let’s go back to the Annexes. Wealth-sharing, Power-sharing, Normalization. You have limited options in the sense that time is a constraint. Aren’t you scared that you’d end up with an agreement that you would rush into? Or you will not rush into signing an Annex even if you are conscious of the time constraint?
A: In the negotiation you cannot compromise on principles … It’s useless to rush an agreement, to sign an agreement that will not address the problem.

Q: They say the MILF has been mainstreamed, is now in the mainstream.
A: Right. If you see the MILF, it’s the only organization that has overwhelming support from the Bangsamoro peole although we admit that in the island provinces like in Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-tawi, not so although we have both military and political apparatus there but it is not as strong in Maguindanao and Central Mindanao. But then by now we are trying to strengthen the islands.

Q: The President in his speech at the launching of the Sajahatra Bangsamoro in February mentioned Heartbreak Hill in the Boston Marathon, that if you go past Heartbreak Hill, there is no stopping, you will reach the finish line. But we know what happened on Apil 15. The runners had gone past Heartbreak Hill but didn’t reach the finish line because of the explosions.
A: We have to be on guard against spoilers.

Q: In the FASTRAC’s (Facility for Advisory Support for Transition Capacities), capability-building, would that include getting resource persons from former revolutionary organizations that have transformed into political parties?
A: We will identify what are our needs are. After identifying our needs the UN provides the experts.

Q: You consider transforming a revolutionary army into a political party as something that you will have to go through, right? But that means you have to seek experts for these
A: Yes.

Q: This is one of those you will recommend as needs?
A: Yes. It’s a big challenge on our part transforming into a… very challenging. Anyway, aside from FASTRAC we can also avail of assistance from countries supporting the peace process.

Q: How soon will you start? It’s almost 2016. You’re not going to start building a political party only when you have the Transition Authority, right?
A: Yes. Within this year we will start already. What is important is we have the framework. That’s the strategy.

Q: But definitely you will transform into a political party
A: We are more inclined to form a political party because we want to maintain the status of the MILF as an Islamic organization. We are more inclined to form a political party that will be the arm of the MILF for the political process.

Q: Your hands are full between now and 2016. The other reality is most of you are in your senior years, Is the MILF bench deep enough for the second liners, third liners should this process drag on.
A: Actually, we are starting already to mold young people. We involve them even in the Transition Commission. Also, we will be involving many of the young people in the negotiation itself.

Q: Are we going to look forward to the election campaign in 2016 for the candidates of your political party?
A: We hope that the peace process will go through smoothly because that is our target, that by 2016, the MILF political party will be entrenched. We are hoping. We always have the fallback if it doesn’t happen.

Q: And the fallback is
A: We will continue our struggle. But then we will do everything so that the peace process will succeed because we invested so much time and resources for this peace process.

Q: Are we going to see in 2016 candidates who will really campaign on the platform of issues and not just because they have the bloodline and the money?
A: That’s why I’m saying that from the transition we will start to change the system . We have to inform the people that we need to change the system so hopefully by 2016 we can already implement some changes in the system. It doesn’t mean we will only field MILF candidates because for us, governance should be inclusive. What is more important is the system will be in place. As far as who will run that system, that is the second priority because the first priority is to entrench the system. That’s why before 2016, everything will be entrenched.

Q: As of now we have five ARMM provinces and two cities. Are you not afraid that in the plebiscite, given that as you said you are not as strong in the islands, that the core area might even been reduced by 2016?
A: We don’t see that.

Q: You don’t see that as a problem?
A: As far as Bangsamoro is concerned, we see an overwhelming support not only within the MILF but the public. I think as long as the Basic Law will really speak for their aspirations, there will be an overwhelming support. We are hoping the other areas that will be part of the plebiscite — Cotabato City, Isabela City and the adjoining villages and municipalities — we are hoping they will join the Bangsamoro.

Q: You are not afraid you will have a smaller area?
A: As of this moment, no. We don’t see that. We will work (to ensure that it will not be reduced). Because if we content ourselves on the present (composition), it’s like status quo. No change.

Q: You’re just changing the name.
A: That’s why in the negotiation, we are insisting that what is given already (to the ARMM) should not be discussed anymore. What should be discussed is what will be added because that is where we are concerned because the Bangsamoro people are not satisfied with the present status quo. So we need to show there is something new and it’s an addition, not minus.

Q: But what happened in the election was status quo
A: Because the present election is not part of the transition mechanism. We will see in 2016.

Q: Do you see yourself as a candidate in 2016?
A: My fate will be decided by the organization. We will see. But personally I am not decided.

Q: You will field candidates who are highly qualified and
A: Of course. And will toe the line of the struggle, have a good grasp of the struggle and the aspirations of the Bangsamoro people.

Q: In 2016, will we see candidates who will really be espousing and discussing issues and not just be relying on bloodline and money?
A: Yes, that will be our target. If we’re fielding candidates it will really be a change of the system that we’re seeing now in politics.

Q: So 2016 should be something to look forward to in the Bangsamoro areas that for decades have been referred to as the cheating capital during elections?
A: It might not be a complete overturn but we are ensuring that there will be change in the system and in the process.

Q: Your relatives voted?
A: Some did.

Q: Did their candidates win?
A: Some won, some lost… What is important is at least there is a victory of the peace process. Everyone who won have expressed their support for the peace process. Hopefully they will be true to their word.

(ARMM WATCH is a project of VERA Files in partnership with MindaNews and I-Watch. It is supported by The Asia Foundation and Australian Agency for International Development. VERA Files is put out by veteran journalists taking a deeper look at current issues. Vera is Latin for “true.”)

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