The Philippines: Back to the Table, Warily, in Mindanao
Asia Briefing N°119
24 Mar 2011
Peace talks between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) are back on track, with one round of talks in Kuala Lumpur in February 2011 and another scheduled for late April. The obstacles to achieving a final peace are huge, but the administration of President Benigno S. “Noynoy” Aquino III has at least brought some fresh air to the process. A new government peace panel seems determined to find a way out of a negotiator’s nightmare: multiple parties engaged in parallel and sometimes contradictory talks; powerful potential spoilers; and ethnic divisions, feuding clans and divergent political interests among the Bangsamoro – the Muslims of Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago – that make unity within the MILF’s own constituency elusive.
Enough commitment exists on both sides to move forward despite these obstacles, but the two parties need to recognise some hard truths. One is that, sooner or later, the separate peace processes with the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the MILF will have to converge, and more thought is needed now about how to make it happen. Another is that there is deep scepticism, not just in Manila but also in the Moro heartland, about the capacity to make any autonomous government in Mindanao work; the MILF thus needs to do more even before a peace agreement is signed to show with concrete actions that its end product will be a qualitative improvement over the existing Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).
The MILF remains committed to the creation of an autonomous sub-state “in association” with the Philippines. In the past, opponents have seen this as an assault on Philippine sovereignty and fought against both the concept and the proposed boundaries of a Moro homeland. Also standing in the way of a sub-state is the ARMM itself, a dysfunctional unit created by the Philippine Congress in 1989 as part of the post-Marcos effort to reach out to regional insurgencies, then slightly expanded in 2001. Its fate is an issue in the government’s talks with both the MNLF and MILF and thus a major reason for finding a way to coordinate the two sets of negotiations. The history of corruption and poor governance in ARMM since its founding is also used as ammunition by critics to argue against any plan that would result in an expansion of its powers or territorial reach.
The Aquino government has not made its negotiating stance public, but it seems to accept in principle the idea of a sub-state as long as its territory is contiguous; the details will be the hard part. It also understands the need for consultations with and buy-in from potential opponents and is determined to avoid the pitfalls that led to the 2008 breakdown of negotiations.
The talks would be difficult enough if this were all the negotiators had to contend with, but there are other complications. Government unhappiness with the Malaysian facilitator, Datuk Othman Abdul Razak, delayed resumption until 2011, as Manila pressed for his removal; while he now is likely to be replaced, it remains to be seen whether Manila will find his successor more impartial. A move in December 2010 by Ameril Umbra Kato, a key commander, to break away from the MILF’s army, the Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces, and establish his own unit has raised concerns about the extent of MILF command and control. The bombing of a bus in Manila’s main business district in late January 2011 led to media speculation about the possible involvement of extremists from the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) or the MILF, raising the old spectre of links to terrorists, though the perpetrators were never identified.
Through all of these difficulties, the complex architecture of the government-MILF peace process has been one of its strengths, providing a framework for monitoring and dispute resolution that survives changes of administration and keeps a range of stakeholders engaged. But the parties need to find a way to move beyond the status quo, a ceasefire stretching indefinitely into the horizon without ever reaching a political settlement that enough people can accept to make it both legitimate and enforceable.
The talks now underway could produce one of three possible outcomes. One would be a final comprehensive compact formally ending the conflict and creating a new autonomous region. Another would be protracted negotiations that never quite manage to reach an end but have enough forward momentum to keep the MILF rank and file on board and the ceasefire mechanisms in place. The third would be breakdown, triggered by either frustration on the MILF side at lack of progress or an external event, such as an attack and retaliation in the field. History is not on the side of successful resolution. Nevertheless, with genuine political will in Manila, there may be room for cautious optimism.
Jakarta/Brussels, 24 March 2011