A wide-ranging interview with Filipino Ambassador to Myanmar Eduardo Kapunan by the Global New Light of Myanmar and MRTV touched upon democratic and economic reform, peace process, bilateral relations between Philippines and Myanmar and southern Philippines issue.
Q: Myanmar and the Philippines have established diplomatic relations since 1956, which is longer than ASEAN’s existence. When President Duterte visited Myanmar in March this year, he praised the enduring bond between the two countries. Please share your reflections on Myanmar-Philippines diplomatic relations.
A: The present relationship between the two countries is quite good but of course there is still a lot of room for it to grow better. With the present state of communications between the two countries I have high hopes that it will get better.
Q: Myanmar and Philippines have been cooperating in areas of agriculture, labor, trade and investment. During President Duterte’s state visit, the two countries signed a MOU on food security and agricultural cooperation. Could you elaborate about this cooperation?
A: This cooperation is really an exchange of ideas on how to approach food security. Philippines have had a lot of concern over food security and somehow we have learnt a lot of lessons in that regard. Myanmar being a newly democratic republic maybe we can share from the past experiences that we have to include lessons from the past mistake that we have had.
Exchange of ideas in food security is not a one way process, it is going to be a two way process, learning from Myanmar and Myanmar learning from the Philippines as well.
Q: We have heard of the armed conflict in Marawi City located on the island of Mindanao, why did it get worse?
A: We have to separate the incident in Marawi with the larger armed conflict Mindanao. The other players such as the Moro National Liberation Front, the Islamic Liberation Front which came after the MNLF, and then here comes the BIFF, Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters. Most of these are rooted in certain perceived inequality in the social situations in the Philippines. By and large, the major cause of the rebellion is actually injustice. So the Philippines government has moved forward to really improve the justice system, not only the filing cases in court but also in economic justice. There is this social justice system that also involves the social mobility of the people. There is this political injustice where the participation of the people is not ensured in governance. So all of this now is being addressed.
The recent Marawi incident was brought about by another dimension and it has this extremist color. It is brought about by the fundamentalist forces which some Filipinos try to connect with as the events in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan were unfolding. If I can recall clearly, most of the Muslims who fought in the war between Afghanistan and Russia went to Bosnia and Herzegovina after it ended and then fought another war. After that, they all came home to the Philippines and established this kind of group now.
The religions they mention in this conflict is something that the Philippines is so careful about not to exasperate the situation. For one thing, the Philippines Institution gives religious freedom to any religion who wants to propagate themselves in the country. That is also being addressed with the help of the other Muslim countries who are not really inclined to the extremist side.
The Marawi incident is the first display of the force of the IS connected group in the Philippines. The government now is bent on destroying this and not the religious belief but those actions that have caused dismemberment and poverty in the region and that have caused injustice to the civilians who are not really involved in all of this. Our president is quite strong in this and very, very particular about ending this crisis.
Q: What are the challenges and prospect of peace process in Southern Philippines?
A: The prospect is very bright. In our experience, once we sit at the table in a face-to-face conversation, we somehow find a way to connect with the other’s challenges. And so far even the MILF and the MNLF have signified the intention to help the government subdue the Marawi incident. So I would expect that the prospects are very high. There are quite a few challenges that I cannot consider insurmountable. Some of the major challenges are really that our government leadership changes almost every six years. So there is no continuity sometimes in general directions. But so far in the past three administrations, the direction has been very consistent and if gets to the level where consistency can be assured, the solution to the problem can be achieved in a lesser time than what a lot of people expect.
Q: What are the impacts of socio-economy concerning the rule of law, peace and stability in the Southern Philippines?
A: In areas where there is so-called no rule of law, I disagree with because there is always the rule of law. Otherwise if there is no rule of law a rebel can exist without being neutralized. There is rule of law but of course there are challenges to the implementation of the rule of law and a lot of questions are paused in that regard.
On the area of impact on the general economic situation in the country, if you look at the conflict areas; let’s look at Mindanao for example; basically you can divide it into two; the developed Mindanao and the underdeveloped Mindanao. The developed Mindanao is where the local governance is strong and this is where opportunities are abound. People can go with their democratic life and they can really pursue a good future. The underdeveloped one lacks the education system that is good, social mobility is questionable, but it will belong to local government authorities.
The direction set with national government sometimes is not effectively implemented in the local area. Personally if there is anybody I have to blame about this problem, I will blame first and foremost the local government in that area. They are the ones responsible for giving down the directions of national governance and they are also the ones who feel the burden of poverty, the burden of injustice in the localities and they have to do something about it.
Q: Comparing with the Mindanao crisis we have witnessed the rise of terrorism in Rakhine State, so what is your opinion on the current state in Rakhine and can we say that the two situations are similar?
A: I would not venture towards that direction, for one thing the conditions are different, and the cultural dimensions are different and even the root causes are really different. I would not compare both sides as they are both different situations. But there is one thing that maybe I can say and that is whatever the reason I still stick to my original statement that it is the issue of local governance.
Q: We have religious freedom in Rakhine State but there are problems as you mentioned, based on inequality and also lack of participation.
A: And those are problems that the local government should be addressing first and foremost. That is why I went back to failed local governance.
Q: Myanmar cooperates fully with the Philippines for the ASEAN chairmanship, so what is your inspiration on ASEAN as it is going to celebrate its 50th anniversary in August this year.
A: My wish is that ASEAN will get stronger and more assertive in terms of the relationship between ASEAN and the rest of the world. All other countries are assertive as far as their interest is concerned. My personal belief is ASEAN is like having a brother and a sister. Your brother and your sister, whatever bad they will do, I cannot neglect him or her because we are blood siblings. There is more to just hearsay to destroy the relationship. It should run deeper not only in the bloods of the leaders but also in the bloods of the citizens. I feel proud being ASEAN.
My vision for ASEAN is for stronger relationship, for stronger leadership and a more assertive relationship with the rest of the world.
Q: What is you impression on Myanmar’s peace process and democracy?
A: I want to congratulate Myanmar. You have gone a long way already in your democracy. Of course there is still a lot to be done. But as I have observed the peace process, in fact I have talked with the State Counsellor and I congratulated her and she said there’s nothing to congratulate about. But every single inch you travel positively, is worth congratulating. I understand that the peace process did not go through a bed of roses but through a bed of thorns. The only that can carry us through this peace process is the determination to see peace in the country. Peace and development are two things that must go together. Just one or the other cannot make your country progress, it has to be both. It will require a lot of sacrifices from the government, the rebels, the soldiers, and also the civilians. Civilians have been hurt, our brothers and sisters have been hurt so for them to accept the peace process as a pact of their lives they had to offer sacrifices. You know, you can sacrifice the hurt that you have after losing a friend and that’s the same with them. They have to forgive also, just for the sake of the peace process. This sacrifice will have to be made by everybody, even those innocent bystanders.