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Blair as peace process adviser

(Article published in the Mar 25, 2009 issue of Manila Standard Today)

Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process Avelino Razon recently announced  that the Philippine government is considering asking but had not yet asked Mr. Tony Blair to advise on this government’s stalled negotiations with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.  In contrast, sometime in August last year, Razon’s president, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo revealed, during a dinner with Palace and Pampanga-based reporters, that she had proposed the matter of lending his expertise on forging peace with Mr. Blair during her visit to London in December the previous year.  A few days later, British Ambassador Peter Beckingham clarified that “Britain’s offer [of technical advice for the peace process in Mindanao] was a follow-through of an informal talk between President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and then Prime Minister Tony Blair during a visit at Downing Street last December.”  Then, this Monday, the topic was again brought with Mr. Blair in Manila.  And his answer is “Am willing.”

 Whether the British acting as adviser on process of bringing about peace was sought by or offered to the Philippine Government is of no consequence. The proposal per se, irrespective of initiator, is a brilliant idea; and, like a graceful visitor, he expectedly consented. 

 The British had long been interested in Muslim Mindanao; and the people of Sulo had long warmed to the British.  In the India Office London, Home Miscellaneous Series, there is a letter written circa the mid 1700s, where the princes of Maguindanao, exhibited a soft spot for the British.  They wrote in a letter to the King George III, as follows:

 “Time out of mind, my ancestors have known the English name.  The Castillans intermeddle with our holy religion; the Hollanders are for usurping dominion and sovereignty; the English are for trading only.  For that reason, I send this letter to your Majesty, whose name is famous in the country of Telinga and whose ships sail around the world.”


The writer, apparently having power to commit, promised, if the George III had a mind to make him an ally, to give to the British East India Company “any island wherever they may chuse to settle in my country, where they may build a fort and entertain as many soldiers as they please.  If I am an ally of Your Majesty’s, I shall not in the least be jealous of the Company.”

 As credit reference, he made mention of a certain Captain Thomas Forrest, saying, “There is an English captain, his name is Captain Forrest.  He has resided long in Malay countries; Your Majesty may depend upon what he says of my dominions.” 

 It was Thomas Forrest who helped the princes of Maguindanao draw up the above-quoted letter to King George III. Obviously, the notion of conflict of interest was not in vogue at that time.

 Nothing came out of the offer; but, records are replete with formal alliances between Her Majesty’s Government and the Sultan of Sulo.  In May, 1849, Sir James Brooke, who had previously been given the rank of Commissioner and Consul-General of Labuan, in order to give him official standing, negotiated a treaty of friendship and commerce with the Sultan of Sulo. 

 In Article VII of that treaty, the Sultan of Sulo, made the following commitment to the British: “His Highness the Sultan of Suloo, in order to avoid all future occasions of indifference, engages not to make any cessions of territory within his dominions to any other nation, or to the subjects or citizens thereof, and not to acknowledge the suzerainté of any other State, without the consent of Her Britannic Majesty.”

 The Brooke-negotiated treaty did not become binding because the British government did not ratify it within the time allotted for ratification.  The British ambassador at Madrid, Lord Howden, nevertheless communicated it to the Spanish Foreign Minister, the Marquis de Miraflores, who was not amused.

 His sharp reply: “This project of a treaty never matured because it was not ratified within the time fixed therein, or, as far as we know, even afterwards.”  The Marquis was liberal in his advice:   “But even if it had been ratified, the proper procedure for Her Britannic Majesty’s Government to have followed would seem to be, before communicating it to Spain, to answer the protest formally entered against it by the governor of Zamboanga as soon as the actuations of Sir James Brooke were brought to his notice.”

 The British did not appreciate being given some tips on how to behave themselves.  The British foreign minister, Lord Malmesbury, instructed Howden to react as follows:  “In reply I have to instruct Your Lordship to remind the Spanish Government that as early as the years 1761, 1764 and 1769 treaties of friendship and commerce were entered into by Her Majesty’s Government with the Sultan of Sooloo…Your Lordship will further inform the Spanish Government that letters have been received from the Sultan of Sooloo denying his submission to the Spanish Government…”

 Malmesbury, however, was quick to indicate that the British did not have exclusive claim to the Sultan’s affection.  He went on narrate the many instances in which foreign powers, including Spain, have concluded treaties of peace, commerce and protection with Sooloo.  Thus, in his mind, “clearly proving that neither by Spain nor by the other Powers was it considered that the ‘protection’ of Spain interfered with the rights of Sooloo to regulate her foreign relations.”  In other words, Malmesbury concedes that the Sultan’s friendship is like an open marriage.

 We are not however, to jump to the conclusion that, based on ancient documentation, the British adviser whom the still sitting President is recruiting to the cause of peace in Mindanao, is liable to be neutral in favor of the MILF.  History tells us that, in 1860,  when the Spaniards had had enough of the smuggling in the South of “large quantities of articles of illegal traffic, munitions and military supplies”, they closed the port of Jolo leaving only the ports of Manila, Sual, Iloilo and Zamboanga open to foreign commerce.  This crippled the Sulu aristocracy which quickly sought the assistance of the British.

 Sultan Mohammed Jamalul wrote to the British governor of Singapore and Malaca, complaining that “the Spanish authorities prevent  traders intending to come up our country” and do not “permit neighbouring people or people from a distance to come.”  He asked rhetorically, “If they do this how are our people to get their livelihood?”

 Hence, his urgent plea for help: “And we therefore beg to inform our friend of it, and hope we may receive the assistance of our friend, because we have a great trouble, and serious injury is inflicted upon our subjects in the country, and we have no comfort at all.”

 After several similar appeals from the Sultan of Sulu, the British foreign minister, showed him the boundaries of British friendship by sending him the following note:  “The Queen commands me to say to Your Highness that she is glad to perceive from your letters that the friendly feelings which in all past time existed on the part of the rulers of Suloo towards Great Britain still continue unabated, and to assure you that Her Majesty also continues to entertain a sincere friendship for Your Highness, and very earnest desires for the welfare and prosperity of your dominions and people.”

 But, as for the help the Sultan was so earnestly praying for, the British foreign minister, continued, “…Her Majesty regrets that she is unable to afford you any assistance in your differences with the Spanish authorities.  The relations of peace and friendship which exist between Her Majesty and the King of Spain forbid her from taking any part in disputes which may arise between the King of Spain’s officers in distant parts of the earth and the princes and people among whom they dwell.”

 No where but from old London town can come such studied assertion of detachment cloaked in initial disarming warmth.  Just as only a Londoner can with equal case don an Ateneo jacket in the morning and a La Salle one in the afternoon.  London apparently has not much changed since then.