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Philippines Peace Process: Duterte Playing for High Stakes
Philippines Peace Process: Duterte Playing for High Stakes
Bangsamoro’s Potential for Regional Gains
Bangsamoro’s Potential for Regional Gains
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

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.