Speech of former President Estrada on the GRP-MORO Conflict
UP-HDN FORUM on the GRP-MORO Conflict
September 18, 2008, U.P. School of Economics Auditorium

ESTRADA’S ALL OUT WAR: A QUEST FOR PEACE

When I became President of the Philippines – with the largest margin ever in the history of Philippine elections, I might add – I felt humbled to have been entrusted with the greatest honor of the highest title in the land and eager to perform what I thought was my last major role. I did not imagine then that I would later on play the role of an ex-convict. That I would be a victim of a power grab and convicted by a Special Court that was only special because it was specially created to convict me; where the justices were handpicked and where the presiding justice was promoted to the Supreme Court immediately after my conviction. But anyway I am a forgiving man – I agree with Mahatma Gandhi who said that only the weak cannot forgive because forgiveness is an attribute of the strong. I know that history will vindicate me.

A Vision for Real Progress

So let’s talk policy. I had a vision for the Filipino people: real progress that would trickle down to the masa. To achieve that vision, I put together a team of learned and competent economists and other advisers, including UP Professors Ben Diokno, Liling Briones and Felipe Medalla – men of unquestionable integrity who comprised my Cabinet, none of whom have ever been involved in or accused of any scam, I might add -  and together we came up with our Plan for Progress for the Philippines. Our economic development plan was to be achieved by two major means: First, by restoring peace and order in the nation; and secondly, by achieving an effective agricultural program that would ensure the food security of the nation.

Through the program Agrikulturang Masa, my administration was able to achieve a record farm output growth of 6% in my first year in office, bringing inflation levels down from 11% in January of 1999 to only a little over 3% by the last quarter of that same year, thereby cushioning the Philippines from the harsh effects of the Asian Financial Crisis. But that’s another story.

More relevant to our discussion today was my vision for peace and order in the whole country. I believe that peace and order is a necessary condition for growth and development. Without peace, there can be no long-term development. If you recall, in the 1950s the Philippines was No. 2 only to Japan. We were ahead of Taiwan, Hong Kong, Malaysia, even South Korea. Today, we are No. 2 only in the field of corruption.

I attribute this failure for progress to the peace and order situation. So when I became President, I made peace and order in the country a top priority: in Metro Manila, where there were rampant incidences of carnapping and kidnapping; in the parts of Luzon and the Vizayas where we have seen the longest running insurgency in the world – an insurgency that has been going on for over fifty years; and in Mindanao, which has seen the longest running secessionist movement in the world – secessionism which has been going on for over thirty years.

To jumpstart the restoration of peace and order in the country, I appointed the then-General Ping Lacson to head the Presidential Anti-Organized Crime Task Force or PAOCTF, with the objective of minimizing if not totally eradicating the incidences of carnapping and kidnapping in the country. He was very successful at this and so for the first time in history, the Philippine National Police achieved a record high of +53% approval rating. I then promoted Lacson to become PNP Chief.

Peace as a Path to Progress: Negotiating in Good Faith

But while we made great progress in achieving peace and order in Metro Manila, the problem in Mindanao persisted. So I became dead set on achieving peace in Mindanao, in order to sooner achieve our goal of making Mindanao the food basket of the country.

As early as August 1998, I issued a Presidential Memorandum of Instruction (MOI) which instructed the GRP Panel to negotiate with the MILF. But even then I was mindful of working within the bounds of the law; and therefore the negotiations were to be conducted specifically within the following parameters: First, that negotiations would be conducted within the mandates of the Constitution and the laws of the land. Second, that it should seek a principled and peaceful resolution with dignity for all concerned.
With the objective of a lasting peace, the GRP-MILF peace talks formally opened in Sultan Kudarat, Maguindanao on October 25, 1999. We were encouraging the MILF then to return to mainstream society through the autonomy program of former President Fidel Ramos.

I want to EMPHASIZE that my administration’s objective was PEACE. And that we went through SEVERAL negotiations and NUMEROUS talks BEFORE we declared an all-out war.

The peace talks and negotiations, in fact, seemed hopeful in the beginning. I sent several members of my cabinet to negotiate with the MILF on different levels, including Robert Aventajado, who was Chief Negotiator, and Agrarian Reform Secretary Horacio ‘Boy’ Morales.

To emphasize that we went through not one, not two, but a SERIES of peace talks, allow me to enumerate some of the major agreements reached:

  • On February 10, 1999, the panel achieved a Joint GRP-MILF Acknowledgment and Agreement to Reaffirm the Pursuit of Peace;
  • On February 17, 1999, the parties issued a Joint Statement on the Cessation of Hostilities;
    On September 2, 1999, a Statement for Joint Efforts to Pursue Just, Equitable, Lasting Peace signed by both the GRP and the MILF;
  • On October 6, 1999, a Second Joint GRP-MILF Agreement;
  • And on October 25, 1999, yet another Opening of Formal Peace Talks.

One would think that with all these peace talks and ceasefires, a lasting peace would have been achieved already. But the MILF, with all due respect, has proven to be an organization that does not remain true to its word; a group that only uses ceasefires to regroup and strengthen their forces. We saw this in November 1999, when the MILF, in spite of a peace agreement, initiated heavy fighting in Central Mindanao and North Cotabato. We saw this again on January 10, 2000, when the MILF, in spite of a peace agreement, took over the Talayaan Municipal Hall in Magindanao. We saw this again on February 25, when the MILF, in spite of a peace agreement, bombed a ferry in Ozamiz City, killing 25 people. We saw this again on March 16, when the MILF, in spite of a peace agreement, occupied the Kauswagan Town Hall. And these are only a few of the hostilities initiated by the MILF in a period of less than six months.  So after all these peace talks and ceasefires, it became clear that this was an organization that would neither respect the Philippine government nor salute the Philippine flag.

But we did not give up. We made one last attempt, on April 27, 2000. The GRP on that day met with the MILF and by midnight had reached an agreement “to get back on the road to peace” and to “normalize the brewing situation in Central Mindanao, Lanao area, and the Narciso Ramos Highway”. (By the way, the Narciso Ramos Highway is a 184-kilometer road that links the cities of Cotabato and Marawi. It had a 17-kilometer stretch where no military vehicles or troops could pass and where commercial vehicles were forced to pay “toll” or what the MILF called ‘zakat’.)

So we achieved another peace agreement with the MILF on that day. But barely six hours after the signing of the document, the MILF initiated hostilities AGAIN on the Narciso Ramos Highway. And then around a week after, they took over the municipal hall of Kauswagan town, killing soldiers and mercilessly burning three children to death.

So many lives have been killed, so many soldiers sacrificed – thousands, maybe even hundreds of thousands because of this conflict with the MILF in Mindanao. Even the government has lost count. Not to mention those who were victims of extortion, kidnappings and even rape.

I had had enough. I knew this violence was never going to end unless I declared an all out war. So bearing in mind our national security and with the conviction that it is the duty of the Commander in Chief to protect the territorial integrity of the country at all costs, I declared an all out war against the MILF.

War as a Means to Peace

I gave the MILF a deadline for the conclusion of the peace talks with the GRP panel: June 30. They would either accept or reject the offer of the Philippines: because the government must negotiate from a position of strength and not of weakness. The MILF refused to recognize the territorial integrity of our nation. So we pursued the war, as a means to finally achieving peace.

There were objections to the war.; and even appeals from a very influential religious leader and a very powerful head of state, asking me to desist from the all-out war. But bearing in mind the future of Mindanao and the country as a whole, I summoned my strength to put my commitment to the Filipino people first and continue my quest for peace. So in spite of the objections, I stood my ground and pursued the all out war because I believed that this war was now the only solution to attaining peace in Mindanao.

We won that war – swiftly and at a modest cost. All in all, the AFP overran 33 minor camps and 13 major camps or a total of 46 camps of the MILF, with breakaway groups of MILF forces withdrawing to different directions and Hashim Salamat fleeing to Malaysia.

On July 10, I personally went to Camp Abubakar to take down the flag of the MILF and hoist the Philippine flag. I believe that was a proud moment in the history of our country; a testament to the fact that we are a nation with one flag, one armed forces and one government. I consider that moment one of the legacies of the Estrada Administration because at that moment our soldiers stood proud, knowing that they had the capacity to end hostilities that had gone on for thirty years, seeing that they could conquer terrorists, and realizing that they had fought for peace for their Mindanao brothers and for the nation.

And that moment was supposed to be the beginning of real progress, of real development in Mindanao. For with the secessionists, extortionists, and terrorists finally out of sight, it signified that investors and tourists would finally come and invest heavily in that part of the Philippines.

Back to Square One – And Worse

Unfortunately, immediately after taking over, the new administration entertained these secessionists again. Soon enough, the kidnappings and extortionist acts returned. The American missionary couple Martin and Gracia Burnham, along with other tourists, were kidnapped in May 2001 and the Abu Sayyaf Group demanded $1 Million in ransom or P20 Million each for the Filipino hostages. The Philippine government has returned to the old pattern of peace talks and ceasefires with kidnap-for-ransom and other hostilities throughout. Just last year, ten marines were beheaded, Father Bossi was abducted, the Davao City airport was bombed; and just this year broadcaster Ces Drilon was kidnapped.

Then just last month, we almost lost a huge portion of Mindanao to the MILF forever, had the media not gotten wind of the slyly processed Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain. Clearly, the MILF have their own endgame: to have their own state. As Commander in Chief, I would never permit that. To allow the dismemberment of the country is nothing short of treason. Because Mindanao does not belong only to the Bangsamoro and certainly not to the MILF. Mindanao belongs to all Filipinos. And therefore I have been vehemently against the signing of the controversial Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain because it is not for a President to authorize the dismemberment of our country. On the contrary, it is the solemn duty of the President and Commander in Chief to protect the territorial integrity of the country at all costs.

People talk about the costs of war. The cost of the three-month all-out war in Mindanao was very small compared to the enormous benefits that would be reaped by achieving peace. I saw that even with the expertise of the best economists in the world, Mindanao would not see progress if the secessionist movement continued. And that is why we fought – and won – that all-out war.

Because sometimes men need to wage war in order to achieve peace.