Month saw second phase of plebiscite on new Bangsamoro Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) and appointment of interim regional govt, while military campaign against militant groups continued. Following Jan plebiscite in Mindanao creating BARMM, Lanao del Norte province and parts of Cotabato province 6 Feb held plebiscite on whether to join entity: 63 out 67 villages in North Cotabato voted to join, while majority-Christian Lanao del Norte province voted against allowing six municipalities, all with strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) presence and in favour of joining BARMM, to do so, raising concerns over potential tensions and exclusion of major MILF camp from BARMM area. Lanao del Norte hit by three explosions on eve of plebiscite, no casualties. Duterte 22 Feb led swearing in of 80 members of Bangsamoro Transitional Authority (BTA), 41 of them appointed by MILF and 39 by govt, with MILF chair Murad Ebrahim chief minister. Military continued campaigns against militant groups and pursuit of individuals suspected of involvement in 27 Jan Jolo church bomb attack, reporting some suspects killed and some surrendered. Interior minister 1 Feb said Indonesian couple carried out attack assisted by Islamic State (ISIS) and Abu Sayyaf, Jakarta denied. Three suspected Abu Sayyaf militants and five soldiers killed in 2 Feb clash in Sulu province’s Patikul town, reportedly involving around 100 Abu Sayyaf. In clash with Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) in Maguindanao 3 Feb, military reported eight militants killed. Interior minister 7 Feb said Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan believed to be new Abu Sayyaf leader. Abu Sayyaf also continued to target civilians and threatened to kill three civilian hostages. Military continued campaign to end communist New People’s Army (NPA) insurgency, with several soldiers, police and NPA fighters reported killed in clashes during month. NPA also reportedly killed several civilians and freed some hostages. President Duterte again offered to reopen peace talks with Communist Party of the Philippines, in return for stopping attacks on security forces and taxation which govt terms extortion.
Hopes are high that one of the world’s longest-running civil conflicts can be resolved in the Philippines. The newly-elected president must act on his commitment to the outgoing administration’s promise of autonomy for the southern Bangsamoro (Muslim Nation) population. Failure to do so risks more lawlessness or reigniting the insurgency.
The Philippines has had some recent success in winding down decades-long negotiations with rebel groups, but achieving peace with the country’s biggest insurgency, in Mindanao, requires both new energy and fresh thinking.
The next round of talks between the Philippines’ largest Muslim insurgent group and the government is a crucial step towards implementing a sweeping peace agreement signed in October.
Politics in the Sulu archipelago could be an unforeseen stumbling block for a negotiated peace with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in the southern Philippines.
The Philippine government and Muslim rebels need to take concrete steps to address the precarious situation of indigenous peoples, known as the Lumad, to secure their support for the peace process on the southern island of Mindanao.
The Philippine government is experimenting with a creative but risky new strategy to resolve the conflict in Mindanao.
If [President] Duterte can move this [the peace deal] forward during this honeymoon period rapidly, it has a much better chance of going through. I think it's an opportunity that's a tragedy to lose.
The Philippine city of Marawi, on Mindanao island, remains in ruins more than a year after a five-month jihadist takeover. To avoid fuelling militancy, Manila must involve locals in reconstruction, implement a 2014 deal with Mindanao separatists and go beyond efforts to counter jihadist ideology.
Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte has put his weight unequivocally behind efforts to bring a negotiated end to more than four decades of conflict in the south of the country, but uncertainty is bleeding momentum from the process and the clock is ticking.
Originally published in The Interpreter
Cooperating on oil won't work - but fishing might.
Originally published in The National Interest
The southern Philippines is potentially closer to peace than at any time in the four decades since Muslim insurgents started fighting for independence, but the substantial progress over the past six years is also fragile. The new President, Rodrigo Duterte, needs to build quickly on the foundations laid by the last administration or the process risks collapse.