The Philippines: A New Strategy for Peace in Mindanao?
Asia Briefing N°125
3 Aug 2011
The Philippine government is experimenting with a creative but risky strategy to bring peace to Mindanao. It has three goals: demonstrate that good governance in the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) is possible through a two-year reform program; bring separate discussions with two insurgencies, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the much larger, better-armed Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) together; and hammer out the territory and powers of a future Moro “sub-state” in peace talks with the MILF. Until now, the government has not made clear how the three components fit together, but it may reveal its hand – at least in part – in mid-August 2011, when it is widely expected to present a new proposal to the MILF. After President Benigno S. “Noynoy” Aquino III took office in June 2010, he said that resolving the conflict in Mindanao was a priority, and the current occupants of the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (OPAPP) are determined to find the formula for peace that eluded their predecessors. The idea of “convergence” is the result.
While many aspects are unclear, the thinking may run something like this: A 2008 agreement with the MILF broke down just before the final signing because of concerns in Manila about Philippine sovereignty and among non-MILF groups – both Christian and Muslim – in Mindanao about protecting their political and economic interests. The Aquino government knows the same could happen again unless the sceptics are on board. It has postponed scheduled elections in the ARMM and seems to believe that if it handpicks who will run the region for the next two years, it could be possible to clean it up in a way that proves autonomy need not be synonymous with corruption, poverty and private armies. At the same time, positions within the ARMM could be used as sweeteners to entice members of the MNLF, who are unhappy that their own 1996 peace agreement was never fully implemented, to cooperate. The government also hopes that Muslim civil society organisations can help push the MILF and MNLF onto one negotiating track.
The question is where reaching a deal with the MILF fits in. Two scenarios seem most likely. In one, the MILF remains on the sidelines while the two-year caretaker regional administration tries to clean up the ARMM. By including the MNLF among its appointees, the Aquino government would make good on its promise to implement the 1996 agreement and permit it to claim some responsibility for progress made. A final settlement with the MILF would be worked out afterwards. In the second, the government might try to involve the MILF in the ARMM government sooner. In the negotiations, the insurgent organisation has long proposed that it run an interim administration until a new, larger and more autonomous sub-state is created.
No part of this strategy is without risk. There is no guarantee that the government can clean up the ARMM in two years or, even if it did, that this would be enough to bring some of the spoilers on board. A better-functioning ARMM could diminish the enthusiasm of some stakeholders for reaching an agreement with the MILF. Any positions given to MNLF leaders could enhance their sense of entitlement to the whole autonomous government apparatus that they once controlled. Delays as Aquino’s team tries to juggle these components could deepen MILF uncertainty about the government’s intentions.
At least there are some interesting ideas swirling around, and a strategy without risk is guaranteed to fail. At the same time, for all the creativity of his peace process advisers, President Aquino himself appears to be a man of extreme caution, who reportedly does not want to agree to anything that cannot be implemented. The emerging strategy appears to be an attempt to ensure that any future agreement on the territory and powers of an expanded autonomous region would be both legitimate and enforceable.
Jakarta/Brussels, 3 August 2011