Over coffee with chief PHL negotiator: ‘Women were a presence at the peace table’

Government peace negotiators Miriam Coronel Ferrer (left) and Teresita Quintos Deles. Photo: Rappler.com

Government peace negotiators Miriam Coronel Ferrer (left) and Teresita Quintos Deles: Women as game changers in the talks. Photo: Rappler.com

By Cecile Caguingin-Ochoa

The recent visit of the head of the Government Peace Negotiator (GPN) Miriam Coronel-Ferrer to Los Angeles heightened interest about this scholar and former “bloody revolution” activist of the ‘70s and her change of heart to lead the Philippines’ efforts for meaningful reforms in war-torn South.

On Wednesday, April 22 she is to receive the prestigious Hillary Rodham Clinton Award for Advancing Women in Peace and Security in Washington D.C. along with Staffan de Mistura, the United Nations’ special envoy tasked to see a peaceful resolution to the conflict in Syria. An official letter stated that she is receiving the award for her historic role as the first female chief negotiator to sign a comprehensive agreement.

Having missed her briefing at the Philippine Consulate General on Friday, I requested to see her for an informal chat at the Historic Filipino Town before she heads for the nation’s capital to join her family and her sister, Sheila Coronel, Dean of Academic Affairs of Colombia School of Journalism to receive her award.

Her academic background buttresses her acquired skills and training in diplomacy: graduating cum laude from the University of the Philippines (UP) in Diliman with a degree in philosophy in 1981. She possesses a master’s degree in Southeast Asian Studies from the University of Kent at Canterbury. She teaches Political Science at the U.P. She earned a Nobel Peace Prize nomination in 2005 for her initiatives against landmines and fact-finding missions investigating human rights abuses in Cambodia and Nepal.

This month, there are indications that the peace negotiator will continue to receive recognition as a peacemaker and in raising the bar for a meaningful place of women in any endeavor both on a national and international scale. Last month, Xavier University- Ateneo De Cagayan conferred awards to Coronel-Ferrer and MILF Chief Negotiator Mohagher Iqbal for “walking the difficult path for peace.” The university also bestowed an honorary doctorate degree to Secretary Teresita Quintos-Deles of the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (OPAPP).

Undoubtedly, the woman as a game changer in these negotiations became our focus.

There were six women in the Bangsamoro Peace Process including Ferrer. They are Secretary Teresita Quintos Deles, Presidential adviser from 2003, Yasmin Busran-Lao, Director Iona Jalijali, Undersecetary of National Security Council Zenaida F. Brasas, and Attorney Anna Tarhata Basman.

Iye, as her family nicknames her, shared with me her thoughts on how women “at the table” had affected the landscape and some of the terms of the peace agreement. She referred me to her published notes on the subject in the OPAPP publication.

Coronel-Ferrer sums it up: “For certain, Woman was a presence in the peace talks between the Government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). Though she was often kept bottled up, she kept popping out. Because of her weightiness, she would be treated lightly. She stayed amiably visible, but was also threateningly obstinate.”

She recalled that in January 2012, when peace panel chair Marvic Leonen was first considered for another government position, the issue of succession came up. President Aquino reportedly was hesitant to appoint a woman chair, saying that though “he is not anti-women, but that those on the other side of the table may not be ready for one.”

As an activist in the underground movement against the Marcos dictatorship, this thinking bothered her: “For someone who spent her youth and adulthood generally unhampered by societal barriers, it was with consternation that I found myself in my golden years hitting the glass ceiling for being Woman. Woman posed no practical obstacle, only theoretical debates on feminism and Marxism. Can being a woman now in my mature years be such a handicap?” she wrote.

She was pleased that the MILF wrote a letter to the President signifying that they can work with any chairperson regardless of gender and ethnicity — “an indication of their growing openness to en-gender.”

Despite this, she recalls that “still the MILF expressed some misgivings. “In Maguindanao culture, we don’t quarrel with a woman,” MILF Chief negotiator Mohagher Iqbal was quoted as saying, implying that the new situation might unduly constrain them.

The full support of another woman Ging Deles of OPAPP convinced the President to appoint her and let go of Leonen to assume his post in the Supreme Court.

Coronel-Ferrer said initially, there was some awkwardness in the interaction between the genders, and that before the issue of “women” became an agenda on the formal table, the subject “emerged first as fodder for conversation during meals.”

“This was in the first months of 2011, when we all ate and sat at the same time in several dining tables in the hotel, observing proper protocol in sitting arrangements. Later we became more informal and sat anywhere we liked,” the peace negotiator expressed.

She admitted that they had to “just go along with the banter, pitting feminist wit with the male taunting. We cannot be grim-and-determined in our approach.” A perfect approach from someone well-adapted to establishing diplomatic ties.

One of the discussed topics was the Philippine group’s entry, “the right of women to meaningful political participation, and protection from all forms of violence.”

Coronel-Ferrer posted: “Our MILF counterparts wanted to know what we meant by ‘meaningful’. Did we mean substantial? Did we mean maximum? At what level should that participation be? They recommended deleting the word and keeping the rest of the sentence.

“I put in my two-cents’ worth: ‘meaningful’ is best understood by its opposite, ‘meaningless.’ After much deliberation, eventually, GPN Chair Marvic rounded up that discussion with his idea of a compromise: Let’s use ‘meaningful’ as appreciated by the women in our panel, and also based on your own understanding. He then moved to retain the word. The MILF chair, Iqbal, agreed.”

The peace negotiator said “the meaningful political participation of women” was entrenched as among the protected rights, first in the Decision Points and later, in the October 2012 Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro.”

She said during breaks in the early phase, everyone tried their best to diffuse the tension through banter and story-telling. She said the “intense pressure from the international community and also our domestic public for gender inclusivity made way for women’s issues to jump from the dining room to the negotiating table.”

She recalled several other light moments during the negotiations such as on 14 February 2012, the second day of the 25th Exploratory Talks, when “we bought heart-shaped boxes of chocolate to give out to the men in the room.”

In the OPAPP article, Coronel-Ferrer noted: “But there were unsavory occasions too, such as when a woman in our panel (me) was derided as a ‘second-class woman’ – apparently, one who aspires to be like a man. This was after an intensive discussion of the lists of powers prepared by the MILF where a lot of questioning ensued.

“Overall, I can say that there has been a cumulative advance in the MILF’s openness to talk and appreciate gender concerns.”

Seeing that she doted on her first granddaughter, Kaleigh (who looked more like a daughter), I asked her what story can she tell her children’s children about her work.

Coronel-Ferrer said she is confident that the peace panel’s work “will now stop the war between the Philippine government and MILF, although it will not stop all circumstances related to the decades old conflict such as atrocities and armed group clashes by certain politicians.”

She expects that 30,000 armed men would go back to normal life and be part of the main government – a significant change in peoples’ lives. She is hopeful that the general population’s distrust of and vicious attacks on the Muslims would stop.

She receives hate-mails for the work she does: “You’re supporting them when you know how they treat Muslim women?”

The right to peaceful co-existence and “the opportunity for different groups, different ethnicities, different political groups, men and women and traditional leaders along with upcoming leaders who grew from revolutionary movement, with less political violence and less guns on the streets.”

These are the wholesale changes in society that this former activist of the National Democratic Front (NDF) had thought could only be achieved through bloody revolution and now she is positive that her work and those of others can be achieved through peaceful means.

The author (left) with Coronel Ferrer and cousin Yey Coronel-Alcid, the recently appointed executive director of FASGI, and Kaleigh, a granddaughter of Coronel Ferrer, at Historic Filipino Town.  Photo by Dante Ochoa

The author (left) with Coronel Ferrer and cousin Yey Coronel-Alcid, the recently appointed executive director of FASGI, and Kaleigh, a granddaughter of Coronel Ferrer, at Historic Filipino Town. Photo by Dante Ochoa

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