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Why Duterte Needs to Move Fast to End Decades-long Insurgency
Why Duterte Needs to Move Fast to End Decades-long Insurgency
Report 240 / Asia

The Philippines: Breakthrough in Mindanao

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.

Executive Summary

The pact signed on 15 October 2012 between the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the Philippine government is a breakthrough in many ways but is far from a final peace. As with earlier texts signed over years of negotiations, this one – the “framework agreement” – defers several tough questions and it is unclear how, if ever, they will be resolved. At stake is the creation of a genuinely autonomous region in Muslim-majority Mindanao for the various ethnic groups collectively known as the Bangsa­moro, with more powers, more territory and more control over resources. The framework agreement envisions a new government for the troubled Muslim south that would raise its own revenues and have its own police and judiciary. It maps out a multi-step process to create this new entity by the time President Benigno Aquino III’s term ends in 2016. The obstacles ahead are huge. Politics in Mindanao or Manila could get in the way, and it may be impossible to devolve sufficient power to the Bangsamoro government without running afoul of the constitution. The MILF is unlikely to surrender its arms until the process is complete.

Peace talks with the 12,000-strong MILF, the country’s largest and best armed insurgent organisation, began in 1997. They have moved glacially ever since and were interrupted three times by serious fighting: in 2000, 2003 and 2008. The collapse in 2008 had damaging political implications because it hardened the positions of all stakeholders on critical elements of a final peace. These include the territory for a new Bangsamoro homeland and its powers vis-à-vis Manila. At the centre of the storm was a sweeping text known as the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD), whose provisions the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional; it was never formally signed. It was difficult to get the peace process back on track afterwards because the MILF insisted that discussions resume from where they had left off.

President Aquino, who took office in June 2010, had no interest in repeating these mistakes. His government would consult and reassure potential spoilers, and any deal reached would have to be legally, constitutionally and politically water­tight. The government strategy from early on was to find a way to move the MILF away from the terms of the failed 2008 agreement. Aquino, elected on an anti-corruption platform, also did not want a peace pact to run the risk of worsening governance problems in the south. The MILF, proud of its tenacity and consistency in the protracted talks, was initially unwilling to adjust to this new approach.

The negotiations only started to make real progress in mid-2012 when the parties began to draft a text that embodied all points they could agree on, while setting aside everything they did not. With Malaysia, which facilitates the negotiations, and other international third parties to the peace process nudging the MILF and the Aquino government closer together, the text of the framework agreement fell into place. When the hard part came – territory – the MILF was ready to take a leap of faith. It agreed to provisions that are tricky to sell to its supporters in Mindanao but that give all Bangsa­moro a chance to decide whether they accept the terms of a final peace.

For the Aquino government, it was important to bring the peace process back to the Philippines after years of confidential negotiations abroad and to give other voices in Mindanao a chance to be heard. The MILF’s leaders, who claim to represent all Bangsamoro despite the undeniably fractious politics of the region, have agreed to make space for others to sit at the table and help them craft the new law that will create a Bangsamoro government. If all goes well, this will increase the popular legitimacy of the peace process; if it does not, and the Bangsamoro cannot even agree among themselves, it will do serious damage to the idea of regional autonomy. The next hurdle will be passing this new law through Congress. The president’s popularity and considerable political capital will help with stakeholders in Manila, and the depth of his commitment to securing peace in Mindanao will become clear when constitutional issues inevitably rear their head. If the process stalls at any stage, it may be hard for the MILF leadership to control its commanders and retain popular support.

For the Bangsamoro, the framework agreement holds out the possibility of peace, a responsive government and a better, more prosperous future for their children. Nothing has changed yet, but there is real hope that this time will be different. The MILF, the government and their international partners need to work together to ensure those hopes are not dashed.

Jakarta/Brussels, 5 December 2012

Op-Ed / Asia

Why Duterte Needs to Move Fast to End Decades-long Insurgency

Originally published in The Interpreter

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.

President Duterte is a supporter of a peace deal in the south. On the campaign trail he spoke about the 'historical injustice' done to the Muslims, and declared 'nothing will appease the Moro people' except autonomy. But he has also said that he does not intend to pick up where his predecessor, President Benigno Aquino, left off.

At the beginning of 2015, after almost five years of negotiations between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the Philippines’ Congress was close to passing enabling legislation based on the 2014 Comprehensive Agreement on Bangsamoro that would have granted a wide degree of autonomy to a Muslim homeland based on and around the southern island of Mindanao.

But a botched attempt in January 2015 to capture a pair of militants being held by a renegade MILF splinter group near the town of Mamasapano — 44 police, 18 MILF fighters and five civilians were killed — led to a public outcry and the legislative process was slowed to a pace where it failed to pass before President Aquino left office.

Rather than dusting off the drafts that have already been prepared, President Duterte has suggested setting up a 'Moro Convention', which would include Christians, the Lumad (Mindanao’s indigenous groups) and other constituencies, to discuss a new draft. The idea has attractions — one of the criticisms of the previous peace process was that it was an MILF monoculture — but it could also bring problems.

Mindanao is a complex patchwork of religious, ethnic and clan-based interests, and there is a danger that the new Convention could degenerate into a faction-ridden talking shop that ends up emphasising the differences between the agendas of competing groups rather than reconciling them.

But the biggest constraint is time. The separatist insurgency on Mindanao has been going on for 47 years and some 120,000 people have died. A series of agreements — the Tripoli agreement in 1976, the Jeddah Accord in 1987, the Final Agreement on the Tripoli Agreement in 1996 to name a few — have come and gone, leaving many Muslims in the south believing they have been serially deceived by Manila. For them, the failure last year to pass the Bangsamoro Basic Law, as the enabling legislation was called, fits a cynical pattern of undelivered promises. Unless the new administration moves fast to deliver autonomy, or some unequivocal gestures of goodwill that indicate that meaningful autonomy is imminent, their patience is likely to run out.

MILF has said it is, and will remain, committed to the peace process. The real potential problem lies not with MILF cadres, but with disaffected youth who could lose hope the negotiations will deliver peace and prosperity. There is a real danger of accelerated criminalisation or radicalisation. The matrix to encourage this shift, in the form of clan-based gangs or militant movements like Abu Sayyaf and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (both of which have pledged allegiance to Islamic State) already exists. At the moment, the government and MILF cooperate on security in many areas and keep the problem contained if not controlled: a breakdown in law and order risks creating the sort of ungoverned spaces where criminality or radicalism can flourish.

The other time constraint is the relationship between Duterte and the Congress. Duterte won the election with a margin of 16 percentage points over his nearest rival, and that mandate is likely to give him a longer-than-usual honeymoon period. But his big and controversial plans to turn the Philippines to a federalised, parliamentary system will eventually lead to friction. It would be a tragedy if the peace process, today so close to fruition, should fall victim to extended politicking in Manila; the longer the Duterte administration waits, the more likely that becomes.

But speed on its own will not be enough. As the Bangsamoro Basic Law staggered towards its eventual demise under the last administration, there were concerted efforts to roll back some of the key powers that had been promised under the Comprehensive Agreement on Bangsamoro. MILF is clear that although they are willing to be flexible in how autonomy is delivered, the final product must be CAB-compliant. 'The BBL has to be compliant with the CAB, but MILF is open to ideas or efforts either to improve or enhance it,' MILF’s chief negotiator, Mohagher Iqbal told the International Crisis Group.

There will be a delay whatever happens as the new government gets its feet under the table, and while that is a threat to the process, it is also an opportunity. Bangsamoro is ill-prepared for autonomy. MILF and civil groups, assisted by the peace process’ many international supporters, can use the time to boost their governance capacity, particularly in fields where they will inherit power but have little experience: taxation and fiscal governance, investment policy, and land management. MILF also needs to make more efforts to reach out to sceptical constituencies – particularly Christians and Lumad communities -- to reassure them they will not become second-class citizens under the new dispensation.

Duterte’s clear support for autonomy and his huge mandate has won him some time, but he cannot afford to delay too long. A breakdown in the peace process will not lead to a return to the status quo ante but to an unpredictable, and potentially much more violent future.