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Philippines Peace Process: Duterte Playing for High Stakes
Philippines Peace Process: Duterte Playing for High Stakes
Why Duterte Needs to Move Fast to End Decades-long Insurgency
Why Duterte Needs to Move Fast to End Decades-long Insurgency
Op-Ed / Asia

Philippines Peace Process: Duterte Playing for High Stakes

Originally published in The Interpreter

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte has put his weight unequivocally behind efforts to bring a negotiated end to more than four decades of conflict in the south of the country, but uncertainty is bleeding momentum from the process and the clock is ticking.

The Duterte administration inherited a peace process that had stalled when Congress failed to pass enabling legislation that would have created an autonomous region for Muslims in key parts of Mindanao and the southern islands. The proximate cause of the political resistance in Manila was a botched police raid on a radical splinter group in January 2015 in which 44 policemen died, but there were other problems including questions over the constitutionality of some of the provisions and the fact that the negotiating process had been dominated by a single southern group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

President Duterte is making good on his campaign promise to push the process forward. He has promised to abide by the deals signed by the Aquino administration; appointed a close confidante from his Davao days, Jesus Dureza, to run the process; and reached out to other groups, particularly the leader of the other main Muslim insurgent group, Nur Misuari of the Moro National Liberation Front, who has a long history of disagreement with MILF.

But there is less clarity now than there was at the end of last year. The government’s push for greater inclusivity by inviting MNLF, indigenous peoples and other constituencies into the process is in principle beneficial – if successful it will ensure greater buy-in to the finished deal – but there is a possibility the new participants could insist on re-negotiating from scratch, leading to substantial and dangerous delays. The negotiations should use the Comprehensive Agreement on Bangsamoro, the deal agreed in 2014 between the government and MILF as the framework for the failed enabling legislation, as the starting point for the new discussions.

Government negotiators have suggested to Crisis Group that they may be willing to split an autonomous Bangsamoro in two, with MILF de facto running the portions on Mindanao and MNLF running the islands of Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi. This would be a retrograde step that would both undermine the economic viability of the new entity and necessitate lengthy discussions of the modalities of collaboration between the two groups.

There is also uncertainty as to how the process will fit in with Duterte’s ambitious plan to change the Philippines into a federal state. Government negotiators have suggested that Bangsamoro autonomy could act as a template for federalism. They say that the more constitutionally controversial aspects of the southern dispensation could be parked until the constitution is overhauled to make way for federalism. This would be an invitation for opponents in Congress to water down any legislation to a level that would be unacceptable to the Moro population.

None of these problems are insurmountable, but they will take time to solve and it is unclear how much time there is before the security situation begins to deteriorate significantly.

There are three threats to a successful conclusion. The first is President Duterte’s ability to push the legislation through. At present he is almost unchallenged in Congress, but his agenda has upset a broad range of vested interests and it would be naïve to think that they will not strike back. Derailing a headline initiative like the Bangsamoro legislation would be an attractive way of weakening Duterte while hiding behind professions of patriotism

The second threat is disaffection in the South. MILF members say, and there is no reason to doubt them, that they and their armed cadres are fully committed to the peace process, but they have only conditional support from Moro youth. There have been at least three main peace agreements between Manila and the insurgents, starting with the 1976 Tripoli accord, none of which have delivered a sustainable peace. There is a strong narrative in Bangsamoro that they have been serially betrayed by Manila, and the problems in the current process have fed that skepticism.

Should they finally lose faith in this round, there is a danger that they will feed the already growing trends of anarchic criminality, most likely in conjunction with already well established clan-based criminal gangs, or fall victim to jihadi radicalisation.

Crisis Group research indicates that much of the success of jihadi groups elsewhere in the world has been due to their ability to exploit disorder of the sort that might be triggered by a prolonged hiatus, let alone a collapse, in the peace process.

The seeds of radicalisation are already there. A number of groups, including the Abu Sayyaf faction led by Isnilon Hapilon based in Sulu, have pledged allegiance to Islamic State, and there is evidence of an emerging threat from university students radicalised online.

Under normal circumstances, the threat would probably be real but limited. The central identity of the insurgents is ethno-nationalist rather than religious; Abu Sayyaf is regarded by most in the south as a criminal enterprise specialising in kidnap and ransom for profit; and there are significant cultural barriers to jihadi-salafi interpretations of Islam – when Indonesian militants have fled to the area, they have hardly been given a heroes welcome.

But the third threat is external. Islamic State’s hold over its territories in the Middle East is becoming more tenuous; the head of IS, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi has already mentioned the Philippines as one of the group's key international conflicts; and a Syria-based Malaysian, Mohammed Rafi Uddin, has called on militants who can’t make it to Syria to converge on Hapilon and his Abu Sayyaf faction.

Should IS implode, a flood of angry South East Asian militants could head back to the region bringing with them the skills and cash that could provoke a step change in violence.

Crisis Group believes that the best bulwark against these threats is a rapid delivery of enabling legislation that is substantial enough to address the key aspirations of the Moro people. But even in the best-case scenario, this will take time and there are a number of measures that will help to both stave off a crisis and boost preparations for eventual autonomy.

The government should deliver an early peace dividend in the shape of development funds for infrastructure, agriculture and health. The funds should be delivered through mechanisms that include MILF, MNLF and other local constituencies. This would boost their legitimacy and relevance, and improve their ability to control fissile forces within the Moro Community.

The government and the international community should use the opportunity of the hiatus to boost local technical capacity. If an autonomous Bangsamoro is to have control of taxation and investment, for example, it will need bureaucrats versed in developing investment policy and running excise systems.

And finally the government should run a nationwide public awareness campaign to mitigate the damage of four decades of anti-Muslim propaganda. This would both weaken opposition to the passage of the bill and improve the chances of a strong and constructive relationship between an autonomous south and the rest of the Philippines.

The Philippines is closer to peace today than at any point in the last four decades. If it can successfully navigate the next few months and deliver a sufficient degree of autonomy to the south, the impact on local, national and regional peace and prosperity will be significant. But if it fails, the situation is unlikely to go back to the status quo ante: the future will be more unpredictable, and potentially much more violent.

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.