Month saw intense clashes between military and communist New People’s Army (NPA) amid announcement of new counter-insurgency task force, while govt extended martial law in Mindanao and preparations continued for plebiscite to implement 2014 Bangsamoro peace agreement. Congress 12 Dec approved by 235-28 extension of martial law in Mindanao for third time until end-2019. President Duterte appointed newly-retired army chief of staff Carlito Galvez Jr as new presidential peace adviser, fuelling concerns over possible militarisation of approach to peace. Duterte 4 Dec signed Executive Order creating National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict by addressing root causes including delivery of basic services and social development in affected areas; also includes “mechanism for localised peace engagements or negotiations”. Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) founder José María Sison said move intended to “terminate and prevent the resumption of peace talks at the appropriate national level”. Govt rejected CPP’s unilateral temporary ceasefire around holidays. Fighting between military and NPA included suspected NPA attacks on security forces in Bicol region and Capiz, one civilian killed; NPA raid in Sibagat, Agusan del Sur, 19 Dec, kidnapping twelve soldiers; clash in Compostela Valley 27 Dec wounding eleven soldiers. Congressman Rodel Batocabe shot dead 22 Dec in eastern Albay province along with police escort, amid concerns over possible violence around 2019 elections; NPA denied involvement. Clashes continued with Abu Sayyaf, including near Sulu’s Patikul 7 and 13 Dec killing two soldiers and several suspected militants; Duterte 17 Dec activated new 11th Infantry Division in Jolo, Sulu, to combat Abu Sayyaf. Clashes also continued with Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, including reported attack on army camp in Ampatuan, Maguindanao province 4 Dec. Bombing at mall in Cotabato City 31 Dec killed two, wounded 34. Electoral commission 7 Dec opened campaign period for plebiscite on Bangsamoro Organic Law to take place on 21 Jan in ARMM, Cotabato City and Isabela City, and on 6 Feb in Lanao del Norte, North Cotabato and local govt units that petitioned to take part.
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.