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The Philippines: Dismantling Rebel Groups
The Philippines: Dismantling Rebel Groups
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Bangsamoro’s Potential for Regional Gains
Bangsamoro’s Potential for Regional Gains
Report 248 / Asia

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

Op-Ed / Asia

Bangsamoro’s Potential for Regional Gains

Originally published in Philippine Strategic Forum

The recently established Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) offers new hope for a peaceful future for its majority-Muslim population after decades of war. The success of BARMM, and more broadly, the peace process, could send positive ripple effects across the wider region.

The recently established Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) offers new hope for a peaceful future for its majority-Muslim population after decades of war. The new entity is the result of almost two dozen years of talks, and the peace agreements it was built on are inclusive pacts that aim to take into account the Bangsamoro’s complexity while focusing on giving its population a long-awaited peace dividend.

Yet from the start, the Bangsamoro was also rooted in a trans-regional reality, shaped by geography just as much as by the tides of war, peace, and everything in between. The various Muslim ethno-linguistic groups in Mindanao making up the Bangsamoro share several cultural, religious, and linguistic characteristics with the populations of neighboring Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei. Some historians even talk about an “integrated nature of the region”.

Civil strife in the Southern Philippines has been linked to the broader regional environment for years.

Civil strife in the Southern Philippines has been linked to the broader regional environment for years. Violence in Mindanao reached its peak during the Cold War period when Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, and Manila were dealing with the aftermath of their independence. The conflict in Mindanao, like many others during that time, stemmed from a mix of unresolved legacy issues from the colonial period and the appeal of self-determination, brought forward by nascent nationalist movements. The first Moro rebels were trained in Malaysian territory. Their successors are presently learning from Indonesia’s Aceh peace process and its pitfalls. At present, Indonesian and Malaysian militants still eye Mindanao as “land of promise” in an astounding corruption of the island’s hopeful moniker.

History is one piece of the puzzle, geography is another. Muslim Mindanao sits on top of a tilted triangle that extends south from Malaysia’s Sabah region to Sulawesi and the Celebes Sea in Indonesia before going northwards to the maritime domain of the Bangsamoro. The coastlines bordering all three countries historically formed a sprawling trade network, and even now the maritime borders are so porous they are prone to illicit flows of all kinds.

And here lies the conundrum. The Bangsamoro is a region in the making that has the potential to benefit from increased cooperation between the three countries and serve as a catalyst that strengthens the trilateral connection by becoming a peaceful zone for economic activity around the borderlands. Should the BARMM fail in curbing violence and bringing development to its people, however, the Bangsamoro maritime corridor would not only be a missed opportunity but could also turn into a regional tinderbox.

For years, the Sulu Archipelago has been at the crossroads of illegal trafficking in persons, smuggling, and militancy. The triboundary dilemma of policing the porous borders manifests itself in the continuing existence of a network of militant and criminal elements better known as the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG). Responsible for multiple kidnappings, bombings, and hijackings from Malaysian waters to the jungles of Sulu and Basilan, the ASG presently seems weakened but not defeated. Increasingly under pressure from the Philippine military, the network remains fragmented, with various factions having divergent goals. While some ideologically inclined elements have escalated violence, including suicide bombings on Jolo island, others seem focused on preserving their diminishing gains rather than boosting operations.

The COVID-19 pandemic appears to have reduced kidnappings at least temporarily.

Signed in 2016 between Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines, the Trilateral Cooperation Agreement (TCA), has contributed to reducing the number of kidnappings in the area. At the time, a large number of kidnap victims came from the region - mostly from Indonesia - as opposed to earlier years when ASG focused its efforts on kidnapping Western nationals. This may be what prompted the trilateral rapprochement, which strengthened after the 2017 Marawi siege, when Malaysian and Indonesian militants joined Moro militants in a months-long standoff with the Philippine military.

The TCA’s track record is not perfect, but it has produced some benefits. Coordinated patrols in the Sulu and Celebes seas and airspace, as well as coastguard collaboration, introduced new means of jointly tackling maritime insecurity. This has significantly contributed to the criminal-cum-militants becoming more risk-averse. Together with the TCA, the peace process in the Bangsamoro has also led to new initiatives in the BARMM that aim to bring peace dividends to its peripheries – areas that were often neglected because of insecurity. The COVID-19 pandemic also appears to have reduced kidnappings at least temporarily, perhaps because criminals and militants have been affected by or leery of the disease.

The threat of kidnapping remains, however. Building on the momentum created by the TCA through stronger law enforcement cooperation and intelligence-sharing is clearly in the wider region's interest. Likewise, a BARMM that develops its own maritime capabilities can play a role in supporting these measures by implementing such policies at the municipal level. The autonomous government in Cotabato City should also keep a close eye on the Sulu Archipelago, and could work with provincial elites to encourage law enforcement cooperation among those coastal municipalities.

The Bangsamoro also has untapped economic potential that lies in stark contrast to the present reality of poverty, which has driven militancy. The new region’s fragility still hinders both full-scale investments and the strengthening of regional economic linkages with neighbouring countries. Investments in the Bangsamoro, both national and international, will inevitably require time, and will be contingent on the quality of the BARMM’s governance and security environment. Innovative approaches such as facilitating more sub-regional trade through increased port connectivity in the triboundary area, and allowing a barter trade mechanism to operate freely could be beneficial for BARMM, the Philippines, and Malaysia’s Sabah region. Manila could also support the BARMM by working with its neighbours to develop joint projects on fisheries, environmental preservation, and Islamic microfinance to further stimulate the local economy and bolster food security, particularly in the maritime communities of Basilan, Sulu, and Tawi-Tawi.

All three countries have something to gain in working together towards a peaceful and prosperous Bangsamoro.

Of course, the potential for such cooperation depends on the political relations between the three neighbors. The Philippines’ relations with Malaysia are complicated. The centuries-old North Borneo/Sabah dispute is the biggest, but not the only, irritant that keeps both countries at arm’s length. Recent high-level spats on social media have once again amplified Sabah as a bone of contention. But the last controversy on the issue quickly faded away – publicly, at least. While this pickle is not likely to disappear entirely, it could still be circumvented provided the political will to get things done in both countries outweighs the insistence on territorial claims. In addition, the Philippines maintains a good relationship with Indonesia. The recent resolution of the two countries’ longstanding and contentious maritime border issue could be a basis for stronger law enforcement ties – a welcome prospect given the involvement of Indonesian militants linked to the ASG networks in several attacks on Filipino soil in the recent past.

All three countries have something to gain in working together towards a peaceful and prosperous Bangsamoro. A certain level of cooperation was strong in the run-up to the BARMM’s creation through the International Monitoring Team (IMT) that saw Malaysian and Indonesian peacekeepers monitoring the ceasefire between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. With a peace process now underway, the scope for collaboration is even greater. Manila should continue fostering ties with Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur in the maritime domain and utilize the opportunities arising from the peace process momentum to create more regional confidence that would benefit BARMM and the national government alike.

The Bangsamoro will remain a litmus test of broader regional cooperation. The success of BARMM, and more broadly, the peace process, could send positive ripple effects across the wider region. The Philippines and its neighbors have a lot to gain with a Bangsamoro that could finally see a calming of its troubled waters.