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The Philippines: Renewing Prospects for Peace in Mindanao
The Philippines: Renewing Prospects for Peace in Mindanao
Bangsamoro’s Potential for Regional Gains
Bangsamoro’s Potential for Regional Gains
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.

Recommendations

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

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.