The Philippines: Breakthrough in Mindanao
Asia Report N°240
5 Dec 2012
The pact signed on 15 October 2012 between the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the Philippine government is a breakthrough in many ways but is far from a final peace. As with earlier texts signed over years of negotiations, this one – the “framework agreement” – defers several tough questions and it is unclear how, if ever, they will be resolved. At stake is the creation of a genuinely autonomous region in Muslim-majority Mindanao for the various ethnic groups collectively known as the Bangsamoro, with more powers, more territory and more control over resources. The framework agreement envisions a new government for the troubled Muslim south that would raise its own revenues and have its own police and judiciary. It maps out a multi-step process to create this new entity by the time President Benigno Aquino III’s term ends in 2016. The obstacles ahead are huge. Politics in Mindanao or Manila could get in the way, and it may be impossible to devolve sufficient power to the Bangsamoro government without running afoul of the constitution. The MILF is unlikely to surrender its arms until the process is complete.
Peace talks with the 12,000-strong MILF, the country’s largest and best armed insurgent organisation, began in 1997. They have moved glacially ever since and were interrupted three times by serious fighting: in 2000, 2003 and 2008. The collapse in 2008 had damaging political implications because it hardened the positions of all stakeholders on critical elements of a final peace. These include the territory for a new Bangsamoro homeland and its powers vis-à-vis Manila. At the centre of the storm was a sweeping text known as the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD), whose provisions the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional; it was never formally signed. It was difficult to get the peace process back on track afterwards because the MILF insisted that discussions resume from where they had left off.
President Aquino, who took office in June 2010, had no interest in repeating these mistakes. His government would consult and reassure potential spoilers, and any deal reached would have to be legally, constitutionally and politically watertight. The government strategy from early on was to find a way to move the MILF away from the terms of the failed 2008 agreement. Aquino, elected on an anti-corruption platform, also did not want a peace pact to run the risk of worsening governance problems in the south. The MILF, proud of its tenacity and consistency in the protracted talks, was initially unwilling to adjust to this new approach.
The negotiations only started to make real progress in mid-2012 when the parties began to draft a text that embodied all points they could agree on, while setting aside everything they did not. With Malaysia, which facilitates the negotiations, and other international third parties to the peace process nudging the MILF and the Aquino government closer together, the text of the framework agreement fell into place. When the hard part came – territory – the MILF was ready to take a leap of faith. It agreed to provisions that are tricky to sell to its supporters in Mindanao but that give all Bangsamoro a chance to decide whether they accept the terms of a final peace.
For the Aquino government, it was important to bring the peace process back to the Philippines after years of confidential negotiations abroad and to give other voices in Mindanao a chance to be heard. The MILF’s leaders, who claim to represent all Bangsamoro despite the undeniably fractious politics of the region, have agreed to make space for others to sit at the table and help them craft the new law that will create a Bangsamoro government. If all goes well, this will increase the popular legitimacy of the peace process; if it does not, and the Bangsamoro cannot even agree among themselves, it will do serious damage to the idea of regional autonomy. The next hurdle will be passing this new law through Congress. The president’s popularity and considerable political capital will help with stakeholders in Manila, and the depth of his commitment to securing peace in Mindanao will become clear when constitutional issues inevitably rear their head. If the process stalls at any stage, it may be hard for the MILF leadership to control its commanders and retain popular support.
For the Bangsamoro, the framework agreement holds out the possibility of peace, a responsive government and a better, more prosperous future for their children. Nothing has changed yet, but there is real hope that this time will be different. The MILF, the government and their international partners need to work together to ensure those hopes are not dashed.
Jakarta/Brussels, 5 December 2012