Voters in Mindanao overwhelmingly ratified Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL) in 21 Jan referendum, approving creation of new entity, Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM). Compared to prior autonomous region, BARMM will have expanded powers, larger territory, budget allocation and parliament; referendum represented culmination of efforts to implement 2014 Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro between govt and Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), ending over 40 years of armed conflict in Mindanao. Voting took place in Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao, Cotabato City and Isabela City (which voted not to join new region), with turnout reported at over 85%. Election commission declared BOL ratified 25 Jan, with over 1.7mn people voting yes and some 255,000 against. Further vote to take place 6 Feb in adjacent areas including Lanao del Norte province and North Cotabato on whether they want to join BARMM. MILF chair Murad Ebrahim, expected to lead 80-member Bangsamoro Transition Authority that will govern BARMM until Oct 2022 national elections, welcomed result but warned of “huge challenge” of transforming from revolutionaries to administrators; region faces high poverty and threat of armed groups affiliated with Islamic State (ISIS). MILF negotiator Mohagher Iqbal said he hoped splinter groups would recognise popular will for peace. Two days after results announced, double bombing at cathedral in Jolo, Sulu province (which voted against BOL), killed at least 22 people and injured scores 27 Jan; ISIS claimed responsibility. Govt uncertain if it was suicide attack. Authorities believe bombing perpetrated by Ajang-Ajang gang, an Abu Sayyaf subgroup. Military launched ground assault and air strikes against militants in Sulu’s Patikul town. Two people killed in explosion at mosque in Zamboanga City 30 Jan. Attacks by armed groups and clashes with military continued, including encounter with Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters in Maguindanao 15 Jan which left four suspected rebels dead. Clashes also continued between military and Communist New People’s Army (NPA) rebels in different parts of country, killing several suspected rebels. Defence secretary early Jan announced new three-year deadline to end NPA insurgency.
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.