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Podcast / October 19 2021

Negotiating a peace deal is hard, implementing it is harder

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In 2014, the government of the Philippines signed a peace deal with Muslim separatists in the southern part of the country known as the Bangsamoro. The agreement brought a gradual end to a conflict that had killed more than 120,000 people over decades.

This week on The Negotiators, we hear from the government official who navigated the talks, Miriam Coronel-Ferrer. She was the first woman ever to lead a negotiation with an armed rebel group—the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.

Coronel-Ferrer was a political science professor before going to work for the government in 2010. One thing that made her effective at negotiating with the rebels was that she herself had been an anti-government activist during the era of Filipino strongman Ferdinand Marcos.


Note: We encourage you to listen to the audio if you are able, as it includes emotion not captured by the transcript. Please check the corresponding audio before using any quotes.


From Foreign Policy and Doha Debates. Welcome to The Negotiators. Each week, we feature one person telling the story of one dramatic negotiation that either succeeded or failed.

I’m Jenn Williams, one of the deputy editors here at Foreign Policy.


JENN: This week, we’re going to hear about a conflict in the Philippines that raged for years and killed more than 120,000 people. And yet many people don’t know about it. The Philippines is majority Catholic, but it also has a Muslim population in the southern part of the country, known as the Bangsamoro. Muslim separatists there fought for independence for years, especially during the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos. One of the main rebel groups that was part of this armed resistance is called the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, or MILF. For decades, mediators tried to negotiate a deal between the MILF and the Philippine government. And they finally did in 2014.

Miriam Coronel-Ferrer led the government’s negotiating team. She was a peace and conflict professor before going to work for the government in 2010. One thing that made her effective at negotiating with the rebels? She herself had been an anti-government activist during the Marcos era. Coronel-Ferrer was actually the first woman in the world to lead a successful peace negotiation with a rebel group. OK, here’s her story.

I was involved in an underground resistance against a dictatorship which entailed, really, sympathizing with people who were fighting the government at the time using armed struggle. And, eventually, peace negotiations were opened up with the Moro Liberation Front. And as a member of civil society, I ended up being one of the negotiators. Although, in the beginning there were some hesitancy because of the fact that I was a woman, and the president was a little bit concerned about how the other side would respond. And, of course, his main concern was not to make the negotiations any more difficult than it was. But he took the risk and appointed me the chief government negotiator.

So the Moro Islamic Liberation Front really is an old-school type of revolutionaries. They engage in guerrilla warfare. They’re able to get the sympathy of the people on the ground who suffered from the militarization, especially during the period of dictatorship under Ferdinand Marcos. So they do have that kind of following from these very remote communities.

We were meeting with MILF in Kuala Lumpur—in a third country—and they were, sort of, really “protocol-ish.” A protocol, for instance, meant that we could not meet with them directly. Everything had to happen in the presence of the facilitator, and they really rejected all our attempts to, sort of, connect to them independent of the facilitator. After all, we knew them before. I tried several times and I was rebuffed. You know, even handing out a document to them, we couldn’t do it directly. Our secretariat needed to hand out the document to the secretariat of the facilitator, and that facilitator’s secretariat would hand out the document to the people on the other side of the table, just two meters away from us.

It was very clear for us from the beginning: Independence is not on the agenda. Autonomy? Yes. Independence? No. And we wanted them to telegraph that as well to the public, because that was the fear of the public. The president was very clear about it: “You need the public to be with us on this.” Because he was staking his own political capital. He came in as quite a very popular president, and he was using that political capital to sustain these political negotiations. At one point in the negotiation, the MILF came up with the declaration, saying, “We are Bangsamoro in identity, but Filipino in citizenship.” And that was a clear message: “Yes, we are willing to work out some good, autonomous arrangement and not independence.”

A negotiator must never forget that you are dealing with a human being, despite the difference between you. When they were highly emotional over some issue, anything that challenged their cultural identity was something that was, really, like a button that can set off an explosion. And we would just keep our cool. But they were also in that mode where they had to repeat the history to us again and again. Of course, you already studied the history, and up to a certain point, you just can’t go back to history again and again. And we had to find ways and means to get that message across — that we were dealing with the future and not with the history. And that was what we were trying to define: what the future would look like. And we can’t waste hours and hours just going back to the history again.

The MILF very early on submitted to us their draft comprehensive compact, which is how they call it. So it was a book—very thick—and we acknowledged having received their draft. But it took us a long time to get the consensus within government to produce just a three-page draft. But it—as far as we were concerned, it encapsulated the key areas of what they wanted. Of course, they didn’t see it that way. They saw it as an insult. They saw it as really way, way below their expectations. And it was Ramadan when we finally got to sit down with them and send this draft over. And the next day, they were so angry, saying, “This is unacceptable. We are rejecting this draft.” And at that moment, they were ready to walk out on us. For them, it’s really the question of self-governance: “We can do this. This is our call.” And that’s why I really appreciate one expert who came over and talked to them and said, “Be careful what you ask for.”

In 2013, December, we signed the three or four annexes, which meant that we only had one more annex to go. Power sharing, wealth sharing, normalization—which dealt with the security and transitional justice component. Then we needed to come up with a text that would introduce the whole text, which was—as it turned out—not that easy again. So, March was when we set the signing, and a few weeks before, we were not sure if we could get that introductory text done. And there were the fears that the date of the signing won’t happen at all, because of some few words that they wanted to change, or the president wanted — in this instance—the president wanted to change.

So, March for the signing. Of course, you have all of this security preparation for the event. We were flying in two plane-loads of MILF commanders and political leaders, and there had to be a coordinated effort to transport them from the airport to the hotel where they were going to be lodged. And then, again, from the hotel to the seat of the presidency, the Malacañang Palace. And as it turned out, some police officers actually still wanted to assert the fact that some of those leaders had arrest warrants on them, and they were being told that they could not come to the palace to attend the ceremony because there was a danger that the police would do its own thing. And that certainly was not acceptable to the MILF, and they even threatened that if one of them could not come, the rest of us would not come. And the compromise arrangement for that was for the head of our ceasefire secretariat to be seated with them at the back of the hall. Inconspicuous. Not be seated together with the rest of the delegation of the MILF which was on the other side of the room. And that was a pity, because our ceasefire secretariat chief was somebody who really did a lot for this process, and he could not even be seated with us. But it solved the problem.


MIRIAM: After the speeches, we were asked to come up to the stage. The Prime Minister Najib of Malaysia asked his facilitator, “Oh, so this is the Iron Lady?” he said. [LAUGHS] And pointing to me. [LAUGHS] And I was wearing some kind of a maroon blouse, and the presidential adviser was wearing a red gown, a Filipiniana gown, which is like our traditional gown. And the president commented—something like, “Oh, you are both wearing red.” [LAUGHS]

Yeah, so we took our seats. We were instructed about the pens that we were to sign. These were very special pens, actually, and it had John Lennon’s record “Imagine” on it. And the facilitator was a little bit nervous, because no ink was coming out of his pen. [LAUGHS] So I had to tell him, “Maybe you need to tilt it a little bit more so that the ink will come out.”


MIRIAM: And then he did his scrawl. So that’s how it happened. Then we stood up and exchanged documents. That was really a very emotional moment for a lot of people who really, you know, were there accompanying the whole process in the last 17 years.


MIRIAM: So, of course, after we signed the agreement, that was just the beginning of another process, which was to get the implementation done. It was crucial to pass a law that would put in place a new regional government that had most of the power. So we were really moving forward with a very cooperative Congress at the time. But things changed radically about 10 months later, in January 2015, after what is now known as the Mamasapano tragedy.


JENN: You’re listening to The Negotiators, a production of Foreign Policy and Doha Debates. We’ll be right back.


JENN: Welcome back to The Negotiators, a production of Foreign Policy and Doha Debates. I’m Jenn Williams. So: After a long peace process, government negotiators, led by Miriam Coronel-Ferrer, reached an agreement with the MILF. But all of that work was suddenly jeopardized by a single act of violence, an incident known as the Mamasapano tragedy.

MIRIAM: So the tragedy revolved around a police operation to catch a highly wanted target who had a price on his head, put by the US government. And it involved several teams who went into the province, deployed in different areas, including a strike force that was supposed to enter the marshland and get into the hut where this person by the name of Marwan was hiding and arrest him—or kill him, depending on how the operation turns out. And, as backup team, there were some 44 Special Action Forces who were deployed in another village, and they had to cross this river, which turned out to be a very difficult thing to do because of the murky waters. And they were sighted very early in the morning by members of the community who wake up early for their morning prayers. And, seeing all these armed men descending on their community in the wee hours of the morning, their automatic response was to get their weapons. And when one civilian was shot as he was crossing the river, that really opened up the firefight.

All the 44 members of the Special Action Force, except for one, were killed in that incident. Things turned out badly because of the public backlash. Public arguments saying that—you have a peace agreement, and why is the MILF killing our police? But it was very hard to explain to them that there were protocols that had to be observed to avoid these kinds of mis-encounters between the government forces and the MILF. And that precisely was what happened. This was not the first time we had problems with the police trying to override the ceasefire protocol.

We were undergoing the process of committee hearings in the Senate, particularly on the law that we wanted passed to implement the agreement. And suddenly, the committee hearings became hearings on the Mamasapano incident, which turned really hostile against the MILF, and against—even the whole peace process, the government, as well as the president. In the Senate, I was asked, who was I representing in these negotiations? Implying that I was not faithful to my job as a government representative. Of course, I simply said I represented the president of the Philippines. It’s just the fact of the case.

But one difficulty we had was to convince the MILF to come and attend the Senate hearings. And they were saying, you know, “Although we signed the agreement, we haven’t implemented it, and we are not really part of government yet. So why should we get involved in a Senate proceeding?” But for us, it was very important to give them a face before the public. I mean, we’ve met them, we know them, but many people have not met an MILF person before. Certainly not even the senators have met any MILF member. And that took some time. They needed the political face of Mr. Iqbal, because he was the face of the negotiation.

And eventually, Mr. Iqbal came in, and we started out together throughout the whole proceedings, the hostile proceedings. But there was a particular senator who really was ramming down their throats the fact that they were terrorists, and bringing all this terrorist framing back into the picture—after we have signed the agreement with a group that has decided to leave the armed struggle behind and enter a political process and even become government themselves. That was really very difficult.

The protocols were examined in Congress, and it was very hard to explain exactly what the protocols entailed. It was very hard to just, basically, explain it to the senators. And at the end of the day, the sentiment was for the 44 Special Action Forces who were killed.


MIRIAM: Things sort of spin downwards from there, even for the president. For the first time, his popularity rating really dipped and, more so, the peace agreement. So much so that, since elections were already approaching—this was 2015, and elections were in May 2016—legislators sort of played their game of shifting on the side of public opinion and withdrew their support from the passage of the law. So it became extremely difficult now for the champions of the law in Congress to really push it and get their colleagues in Congress, their fellow legislators, to go all out and support it. So as it happened, it didn’t pass under the term of the president, severely postponing the implementation of significant parts of the agreement.

I left the government on the same day that the president left the government. So we all tendered our resignation, because it’s really the next president’s call who will come in. And I can see that the president really, even at the last minute, tried to push the law within his own powers to be able to convince other legislators, but politics was preeminent by that time.

The law was not passed until 2018. That’s a good four years of waiting period when we had the presidential elections. You had new people coming into Congress, a new Congress getting its act together, electing its officers, splitting up its committees, you know, doing the politics among them before they actually sat down and passed the law, finally, in 2018. But the MILF stood back. They didn’t go back to war. No major outbreak of violence after Mamasapano in 2015 has happened. And in fact, the MILF has joined forces with the army in fighting the other armed groups—including the jihadist groups—or providing some kind of backup.


MIRIAM: I read somewhere that a good agreement is one that really prevents the parties from going back to war. And I think that’s the kind of test that we have surpassed so far, so many years after we signed the agreement in 2014. But it’s not the end of the process, it’s just another beginning. I feel bad about some of the provisions in—with regard to the police force, as you can imagine, another very controversial thing—because I did think that there were some innovative proposals that came out of the study group that we created. But that’s how it goes. You win some, you lose some. Get something workable on the ground, get it working, and then improve on what you have as you go along.


MIRIAM: What does it really entail, engaging armed actors and sort of moving them from the war path to this political nonviolent path? It really requires a lot of understanding of their history, their circumstances, what they are fighting for. And being able to discuss these things with them genuinely. Not because you are there to convince them of something, but basically for yourself, to process. But also to co-process with them what’s going on in the society, in the politics of the country, sort of exchanging ideas with them. And that’s very important.


JENN: Miriam Coronel-Ferrer headed the Philippine negotiations with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front that led to a peace agreement in 2014. Those negotiations led to the establishment of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao, where a transitional government is now in place.

The Negotiators is a production of Foreign Policy and Doha Debates. A bunch of people helped produce today’s show, including Rob Sachs, Rosie Julin, Zamone Perez, Claudia Teti, Japhet Weeks, Jigar Mehta, Amjad Atallah and Dan Ephron. Laura Rosbrow-Telem is the show’s senior producer. Thanks to Nelufar Hedayat, Govinda Clayton and James Wolley for helping create the show with Doha Debates, a production of Qatar Foundation. If you want to help us out, please subscribe on your favorite platform and leave us a review.

Next week on the show, you’ll hear about the Iran Nuclear Deal from the lead US negotiator Wendy Sherman.

WENDY SHERMAN: I was most furious, because they were putting the entire deal at risk at this 11th hour, and so I started to yell and get angry and say, “You’ve put this all at risk.” And no matter what I did, I could not stop the tears from streaming down my face.


JENN: That episode next week on The Negotiators. I’m Jenn Williams.