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The Philippines: Local Politics in the Sulu Archipelago and the Peace Process
The Philippines: Local Politics in the Sulu Archipelago and the Peace Process
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
The Philippines: Renewing Prospects for Peace in Mindanao
The Philippines: Renewing Prospects for Peace in Mindanao
Report 225 / Asia

The Philippines: Local Politics in the Sulu Archipelago and the Peace Process

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.

Executive Summary

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. So far the presumed spoilers have been Christian settlers, conservative nationalists, and recalcitrant members of the other insurgency in the Muslim south, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). The islands off the coast of Mindanao have been all but forgotten. But the provincial governors of Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi, although Muslim, are wary of any agreement that would allow the MILF, dominated by ethnically distinct groups from Central Mindanao, to extend its sway and jeopardise the patronage system they enjoy with Manila. The challenge for the government of President Benigno Aquino III is to find a way to offer more meaningful autonomy to the MILF and overcome differences between the MILF and MNLF without alienating powerful clan leaders from the Sulu archipelago with a capacity to make trouble.

The Aquino government’s peace strategy is based on the principle of convergence, bringing three components together: a peace agreement with the MILF; reform of the dysfunctional government of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) which includes the three archipelagic provinces – Basilan, Sulu, and Tawi-Tawi – as well as Maguindanao and Lanao del Sur in Central Mindanao; and review of the 1996 final peace agreement with the MNLF. The latter two components are more acceptable to the elite of the archipelago than the first. They see ARMM as a corrupt and unnecessary layer of bureaucracy and administration between them and Manila but as long as they have equal access to leadership positions, they are willing to try reform. From their perspective, the danger of a peace agreement with the MILF is that it would ultimately replace ARMM with a new, expanded, more powerful regional government that would favour Central Mindanao, the MILF’s stronghold, and its clans, over the archipelago and its politicians. At stake is access to power and money.

The governors from the archipelago need to be accommodated because the provinces of Sulu and Basilan are particularly prone to conflict. They are home to the violent extremists of the Abu Sayyaf Group, armed elements of the MNLF that engage in periodic clashes with the government, and a handful of foreign jihadis. Sprawling extended families, often with private armies and ill-gotten wealth, dominate local politics, controlling towns and even provinces for years by securing the victory of their relatives in local elections. The interests of these politicians sometimes, but not always, overlap with the non-state armed actors.

Basilan poses less of a problem to the MILF peace process than the province of Sulu. President Aquino enjoys a good relationship with one of Basilan’s clans, the Hatamans, but this has increased tensions with a rival family, the Akbars. Because Manila is partnering with the Hatamans to carry out its convergence strategy, it is empowering them at the expense of their rivals. This could raise the risk of violence between the two clans. But these dynamics are local and are unlikely to spill over in ways that could disrupt negotiations.

Sulu provincial governor Sakur Tan is more of a problem. In response to Manila’s overtures, Tan has styled himself as the leader of the five provincial governors within ARMM. He is backing governance reform and the review of the MNLF agreement, while questioning whether a deal with the MILF will benefit the archipelago. The government hopes to conclude negotiations with the MILF by the end of 2012. In anticipation, traditional politicians are manoeuvring to protect their interests ahead of the 2013 mid-term polls. The provincial governors from the islands and the elite of Sulu province seem to believe their interests are best served by aligning themselves with Governor Tan, who is sceptical of a peace agreement that gives too much power to the MILF. If this alliance holds, the political landscape within ARMM may be less favourable to a negotiated peace and divisions among the Bangsamoro, as the Muslims of the southern Philippines are known, may become deeper than ever.

The clan-based politicians in the archipelago are among the most important players in the Muslim south. Despite the ties many of them have to non-state armed groups, Manila needs their help in addressing the chronic security problems in the islands. Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi are also an integral part of the territory demanded by the MILF, and the scepticism of their governors towards the peace process undermines its objective: to grant the Bangsamoro true autonomy once and for all.

Jakarta/Brussels, 15 May 2012

MILF rebels attend a rally in support of the peace agreement inside Camp Darapanan in Sultan Kudarat town, on southern island of Mindanao, 27 March 2014. AFP PHOTO/Ted Aljibe
Report 281 / Asia

The Philippines: Renewing Prospects for Peace in Mindanao

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.

Executive Summary

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. President Rodrigo Duterte, who took office on 30 June, needs to build quickly on the foundations laid by President Benigno Aquino’s administration or the process risks collapsing. Duterte has suggested a new enabling law could be drafted by an ad hoc convention that brings together members of different southern ethnic, religious and political groups. The idea has some advantages, but not at the cost of prolonged delay. The greatest danger to peace is that the restive south, sceptical after watching at least three other agreements founder, will lose faith in the process and return to guerrilla warfare or tip deeper into lawlessness. The most effective way of avoiding these dangers is for the new government to pass enabling legislation quickly that delivers at least as much autonomy as was promised by the outgoing administration.

At the beginning of 2015, the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) seemed on the brink of an historic peace to end a conflict in which more than 120,000 people have died. After years of neglect, factionalism and talks in bad faith, Aquino’s government and MILF leaders had broadly agreed on a package that would grant the five southern provinces, collectively called Bangsamoro (Muslim Nation), a large degree of political and financial autonomy in return for the MILF disarming and dropping independence demands. The Framework Agreement on Bangsamoro in October 2012, followed by the Comprehensive Agreement on Bangsamoro (CAB) in March 2014, laid out the architecture, but finalisation was contingent on Congress approving the enabling legislation before Aquino’s term ended. That did not happen, the result of a bungled police operation and politicking ahead of the May 2016 elections. 

Duterte, the mayor of the southern city of Davao who won that election, was one of the peace deal’s most vocal supporters during the campaign. Though he has said he favours autonomy for Bangsamoro, all indications are that he will not follow the same route as the previous administration to deliver it. It is unclear whether he envisages the settlement for the south as an advance model for his broader plans of national federalisation or as an integral part of them. A long delay, or an autonomy bill that delivers less than the CAB’s promises, risks alienating key sections of the Bangsamoro population. A particular danger is that young people, disillusioned by failure of political negotiations, would seek alternatives, such as joining one of the militant groups waiting in the wings or turning to anarchic criminality.

There was no contingency plan for failure to pass the bill under Aquino, and by law the new government must start the process of drafting and approving legislation over. While doing so, it needs to put in place measures to preserve the gains of the previous administration and make significant good-will gestures fast to boost damaged confidence in the deal. Both sides need to prepare for the coming autonomy. The MILF leadership has invested most of its political capital in the negotiations and to maintain its credibility has to be able to show that the new administration will continue it in good faith. A number of interlocutors within the process and outside suggest the government should boost confidence through increased development assistance to local bodies in the south.

The south is ill-prepared for autonomy. Although the delay presents a threat to the process, it is also an opportunity. It allows the MILF and other groups, such as the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), time to transition from guerrilla organisations to political parties; create an inclusive political platform bringing together Mindanao’s disparate population; and convince sceptics within their own communities to support social change for a lasting peace.

Mindanao’s peace process has been innovative: it includes an International Contact Group to coordinate outside support and, at least on paper, commitment to involve women, minorities, and civil society during the negotiation and implementation of agreements. International partners, in particular Malaysia and the member states of the European Union (EU), have been a vital, constructive force in the peace process, facilitating and assisting as needed, but resisting the temptation to insert themselves so far into the mechanism as to detract from its essentially home-grown nature. Foreign governments, diplomatic missions and NGOs should now help escort the process through the delay, publicly supporting measures such as development aid and education programs, while impressing upon Manila’s political elite that Congress needs to build on the achievements of the previous administration.

Failure to pass an acceptable autonomy law would risk exacerbating disenchantment with negotiated change, fuelling criminality and facilitating religious radicalisation. Global jihadist movements like Islamic State (IS) have shown a clear ability to exploit social disorder in Muslim communities elsewhere to gain new recruits and have already gained some adherents among smaller and more opportunistic rebel groups in Mindanao.

Years of negative national media coverage of Muslim aspirations have had a harmful impact on how the rest of the Philippines views southern autonomy. The new government under Duterte must remember that ignoring or derailing the existing process would lead not to a return to the status quo ante but to an unpredictable, potentially much more violent future.


To maintain the momentum of the peace process

To the Philippines authorities: 

  1. Use the 2014 Comprehensive Agreement on Bangsamoro (CAB) as the basis of any future process. 
  2. Expedite the passage of enabling legislation to create a CAB-compliant autonomous region in Mindanao.
  3. Ensure strong coordination with Mindanao-based security forces to avoid confidence-shaking clashes.
  4. Use high-profile developmental and social investments, funnelled through local groups, to show goodwill, with a focus on infrastructure, education and health. 
  5. Develop a public communication strategy to prepare the rest of the country for Bangsamoro autonomy.
  6. Establish a National Transitional Justice and Reconciliation Commission on Bangsamoro to deal with past injustices.

To the MILF:

  1. Continue to show flexibility in negotiations with the new government on how autonomy is going to be delivered.
  2. Reach out to non-Muslim constituencies, particularly Christian and indigenous groups, to ensure they do not feel threatened by the prospect of living in an autonomous Bangsamoro.

To the MNLF:

  1. Do not attempt to renegotiate the CAB from scratch.

To international partners and donors: 

  1. Focus financial, programmatic and monitoring support on three main areas: governance and capacity building, strategic communications and peace diplomacy, and justice and rule of law.
  2. Establish in coordination with various levels of government and the MILF a multi-donor normalisation trust fund to help pay for the transition.
  3. Help facilitate inward investment in Bangsamoro to boost the local economy through jobs and commerce.

To prepare for autonomy

To the Philippines authorities:

  1. Ensure that MILF fighters who agree to demobilise get their full socio-economic assistance package, so as to encourage other fighters to follow. 
  2. Extend the offer of amnesty and a demobilisation package to fighters of other once-secessionist groups, including the MNLF.

To the MILF:

  1. Broaden the political base of its political vehicle, the United Bangsamoro Justice Party (UBJP), to give a greater voice to women, young people, Christians and members of the Lumad indigenous group.
  2. Help build capacity for governance in Bangsamoro by identifying and nurturing talent across all ethnic, social and religious groups and genders, and seeking assistance and advice as necessary.

To international partners and donors: 

  1. Focus on boosting the technical capacity of the Bangsamoro bureaucracy, with specific emphasis on new areas of governance they will inherit with autonomy, including taxation and fiscal governance, investment policy, and land management.

Manila/Brussels, 6 July 2016