MANILA, JULY 3, 2007 (STAR) FIRST PERSON By Alex Magno - Incoming senator Francis Escudero has taken issue with the prospect of a presidential proclamation granting amnesty to communist and Muslim rebels. The matter, says the senator, ought to be submitted for the consideration of Congress.

The beneficiaries are after all, says Escudero, enemies of the state.

At first blush, that seems to be a reasonable concern. Although matters of war and peace are principally responsibilities of the executive branch, the legislature is an equal partner that ought to be involved at least in the review of policy if not its actual formulation.

But experience has also shown that early involvement of the politicians in the legislature results in the undue politicization of policy questions. The outcome is often policy paralysis if not actual procedural breakdown as politicians position on the options, posture, twist interpretations of policy, hold the executive branch hostage and, at times, cause a breakdown instead of a breakthrough.

Take the great bases debate of 1991, for instance. I use this as illustration because of my intimate involvement in the negotiations process and engagement in the politics surrounding the eventual Senate decision not to renew or extend the bases agreement with the US.

Leading up to the final vote, I headed a UP research team commissioned by the Senate to study possible economic uses for the two large military facilities. As we undertook our research work, the public debate became increasingly polarized. It was either one was for immediately expulsion of US military presence or the continuation of their stay.

Our study tried to measure the impact of US withdrawal on the surrounding economies. We found out the economic dislocation would be tremendous, given that nothing was yet done to transition the surrounding economies from dependence on American military spending. The adverse economic impact would eventually be aggravated by the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo.

Our disposition was to enable a transition period of about 5 years of joint use of the military facilities. That would allow the Americans to reconfigure their force deployment and enable the Philippines to retrain the thousands facing unemployment as a consequence of immediate withdrawal. That proposition, however, fell between the cracks of a highly polarized issue.

The bases treaty was not extended by Senate. Prior to the actual vote, intermediaries were shuttling between the senators and the Palace delivering a long list of concessions the politicians wanted in exchange for their votes. President Aquino refused to deal with the politicians and that was that.

The most beneficial option for our economy was never explored. The dislocation was tremendous. To this day, the local economies surrounding the two huge bases remain depressed even as investments have eventually trickled into the two facilities.

The same sort of policy nightmare might happen in the event the peace process — and the amnesty package that might come with it as a form of sweetener — becomes a football for the politicians to kick around.

When a peace deal was cut with the MNLF, the negotiations excluded Congress. It was a delicate matter handled exclusively by the Ramos presidency.

Key congressional leaders were, to be sure, quietly briefed of the progress of the talks. But the consultations were low key in order to avert the negotiations becoming a matter for political grandstanding.

Of course, when the deal was finally signed (for better or for worse), all the credit went to the presidency and none of the limelight was cast on Congress. Nevertheless, at that more beneficial time, Congress dutifully passed the organic act that enabled the establishment of the ARMM — the key concession of the national government to that rebel group.

I am not sure to what extent the politicians ought to be involved in the current peace initiative with the MILF and that barren negotiations with the CPP-NPA. Without politicians scrambling all over the process, talks with the MILF progressed quite dramatically, hindered only by that intractable matter about ancestral lands. I doubt if the fruitless talks with the communists might have fared better if politicians were issuing press releases every day on the matter.

At any rate, the suggestion that amnesty might be offered did not seem an imminent one. The executive secretary was saying something that, considering comparative peace accords everywhere else, was something routinely included in a political settlement of armed dispute.

Also, the executive secretary was quoted saying something hopeful: that a political settlement to the bloody insurgencies might be reached before the end of President Arroyo’s term.

So Senator Escudero and others like him who want to jump in uninvited to a delicate negotiations process might want to rein in their propensities. Our legislators, especially our senators, seem to be better equipped to issue combative statements than to engage in painstaking negotiations.

To be sure, there will be consultations between the branches of government. Congressional leaders, invoking their oversight functions, could demand to be briefed should everybody forget to do them that favor.

But let’s not put the negotiations in the middle of a political buffet table, where anyone could feel entitled to pick on their preferred cut of the matter, issue statements at their leisure and take positions depending on their own political agendas.

Recall that recent incident when the Democratic Speaker of the US House of Representatives went on her own diplomatic mission to the Middle East. She only succeeded in sowing confusion about Washington’s policy positions in a tense and volatile region.

Let’s not allow that to happen here.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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