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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: Dismantling Rebel Groups
The Philippines: Dismantling Rebel Groups
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
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

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