The Philippines: Dismantling Rebel Groups
The Philippines: Dismantling Rebel Groups
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Philippines: Bangsamoro’s Village Elections Point to a Long Path to Peace
Philippines: Bangsamoro’s Village Elections Point to a Long Path to Peace
Report / Asia 4 minutes

The Philippines: Dismantling Rebel Groups

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.

Executive Summary

The future of thousands of fighters is at stake following an historic deal with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). The government, MILF leaders and donors worry that rebel soldiers could slip back into violence. Successful implementation of a pact that addresses the political grievances of the Muslim minority in the south may be enough for some, but others could take up guns again under the banner of another group, or because of criminal interests, land disputes or warlord politics. Often, post-conflict specialists prescribe disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) – a process that secures weapons, returns ex-combatants to communities, and helps them find jobs – to promote reconciliation and build peace. In the Philippines, however, DDR is strongly associated with counter-insurgency. The October 2012 agreement with the MILF does not mention it. Elsewhere, the government is dabbling in DDR-esque socio-economic assistance to two smaller rebel groups with pre-existing peace agreements. Manila needs to think hard about whether DDR as practised internationally can be carried out.

The 1986 pact with the Cordillera People’s Liberation Army (CPLA) and a deal signed in 2000 with the Revolutionary Proletarian Army – Alex Boncayo Brigade (RPA-ABB) are among the Philippines’ many peace agreements that never lived up to their promise. Both times, the government tried to rehabilitate the rebels but in ways that did little to improve security. The military was given a free hand to repurpose the CPLA as paramilitaries, and the government looked the other way while the RPA-ABB freelanced as vigilante-style police and guns for hire. Programs that could have provided alternative sources of livelihood, such as agricultural cooperatives, either failed or never materialised. Both groups remained armed as their peace processes shuddered to a halt. Manila was lucky that despite their dissatisfaction, neither the CPLA nor the RPA-ABB had any interest in attacking the state; their priority was extracting benefits from the government to satisfy disgruntled members.

President Benigno Aquino III, who took office in 2010, breathed life into the MILF negotiations, without forgetting about other rebel groups. He was willing to spend time and money on the CPLA and RPA-ABB for two reasons. First, the Philippine government lacks credibility when talking peace, because Manila has repeatedly backpedalled on or did not implement core provisions in agreements with the MILF’s predecessor, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), as well as with the CPLA and RPA-ABB. President Aquino believed that one way he could prove his sincerity in the MILF process – the central pillar of his peace agenda – was to keep promises his predecessors had made to others. Secondly, the peace process office, which manages negotiations with non-state armed groups, wanted to incorporate DDR lessons from abroad as it wrapped up the loose ends of the CPLA and RPA-ABB agreements. A “closure agreement” was signed with the former in July 2011; negotiations with the latter are underway.

The Aquino government’s closure processes with these two groups have been haunted by the mistakes of years past. The peace process office had no mandate to revisit the political terms of the old pacts. It tried to find new ways of delivering and monitoring socio-economic assistance, such as gathering data on beneficiaries. These improvements are real, yet implementation has been painstakingly slow. Meanwhile, set ways of thinking about rebel weapons persist. For years, the military ran ineffective, stand-alone weapons buybacks for counter-insurgency purposes. Under Aquino, the civilian-led peace process office has more control, but struggles to escape this tainted legacy. It has moved away from a cash-for-guns model and towards livelihood support for ex-combatants. Government officials dealing with CPLA and RPA-ABB matters, and even some military officers, describe these changes in the language of DDR.

DDR is meant to focus on ex-combatants to create an environment conducive to building institutions to enforce the rule of law, protect human rights and foster development. Both the CPLA and the RPA-ABB cause problems, but it is hard to justify assistance to either group as a prerequisite to, for example, strengthening the judiciary and reforming the police. The Aquino government is interested in international best practices from DDR on some technical matters, but it has no strategy that connects assistance to former rebels to making communities more peaceful and secure in the long run. It did not integrate into the two closure processes the lax enforcement of gun laws and the public’s lack of confidence in the military and police. The peace process office spent hours discussing CPLA and RPA-ABB weapons, while illegal firearms remain widely available, and private armies of local politicians operate with impunity. In the southern Philippines, the same problems exist, but in a much more explosive environment.

The MILF, because of its numbers and might, as well as the level of violence and international support to the peace process, is a case apart. Its fighters have good reasons to hold onto their guns until the government has a plan, including a timeframe, for scaling down the presence of the military and other state-aligned forces in Mindanao. The best way forward for the MILF and Manila may be to develop a shared vision for improving security. The government’s attempt to draw inspiration from DDR for the two closure processes has so far led to middling results at best. Replicating this approach in Mindanao is unlikely to advance the peace process in a meaningful way.

Jakarta/Brussels, 19 June 2013

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.