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The Philippines: Renewing Prospects for Peace in Mindanao
The Philippines: Renewing Prospects for Peace in Mindanao
The Philippines: Three More Years for the Bangsamoro Transition
The Philippines: Three More Years for the Bangsamoro Transition
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

People of Bangsamoro Autonomous Region stage a peace convoy event to support the campaign to extend the term of the transition government in the region to 2025, Philippines on 21 March 2021. Benyamen Cabuntalan/Anadolu Agency via AFP
Q&A / Asia

The Philippines: Three More Years for the Bangsamoro Transition

President Rodrigo Duterte has signed a bill doubling the length of the political transition in the new autonomous entity in the southern Philippines. In this Q&A, Crisis Group expert Georgi Engelbrecht explains why the extension is welcome news.

What happened and why is it important?

On 28 October, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte signed into law a bill postponing the first parliamentary elections in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) from 2022 to 2025, thereby extending the political transition in the region for another three years.

The law amends Philippine Republic Act No. 11054, better known as the Bangsamoro Organic Law, that had formally created the new autonomous entity in the southern Philippines in early 2019, providing for a three-year interim period before holding the BARMM’s first parliamentary elections that would formally mark the end of the transition. Postponing the vote is tantamount to extending the term of the region’s caretaker government, the Bangsamoro Transition Authority (BTA, which combines both executive and legislative functions), until 2025, as the Organic Law stipulates that parliamentary polls in the region must be synchronised with national elections that take place every three years. The bill underwent intense deliberation and scrutiny in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, the two chambers of the Philippine Congress, before lawmakers passed it and submitted it to the president.

The extension is the latest chapter in a bumpy yet overall promising peace process that aims to resolve the decades-long conflict in the country’s southern island of Mindanao. Pitching the Philippine government against various Moro secessionist groups, the war has killed at least 120,000 people. In 2014, twenty years of on-and-off negotiations culminated in a peace deal between Manila and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), Mindanao’s largest insurgent group. The ex-rebels now run the transitional government, tasked with creating the new region’s institutions and drafting key legislation – the “priority codes”, as they are known – to govern the autonomous Bangsamoro. When the peace agreement was still being negotiated, the MILF had first proposed a six-year transition, arguing that a shorter timeframe would be insufficient to bring genuine change to the region after decades of war. The group later agreed to a compromise on three years. Over the last year, however, the MILF actively lobbied for extending the transition period, largely on account of the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact in implementing the original roadmap.

While there were no immediate reactions to the presidential sign-off, the bill’s passage in Parliament clearly brought a sense of relief to the former rebels of the MILF and other BTA representatives, including members of the Moro National Liberation Front, the very first Moro rebel movement from which the MILF split in 1977. Many Bangsamoro communities, particularly those supporting the MILF, had reacted with similar enthusiasm to the prospects for extension; others were more lukewarm, expressing frustration with the implementation of the peace process. International actors – for example, UN officials who were sympathetic but not explicitly in favour of the extension – also released messages of support.

What is the rationale for extending the transition period?

The MILF’s campaign for an extension ... gained traction among national policymakers.

The decision is largely linked to the impact COVID-19 has had on the regional government’s capacity to implement the roadmap leading up to the elections. MILF leaders started advocating for a longer transition period toward the end of 2020, after a local peace advocacy group, the Mindanao Peoples Caucus, recommended postponing the elections in a “mid-term assessment” of the political transition. The non-governmental organisation cited the BTA’s inevitable birthing pains as one reason to give it more time, but also drew public attention to the challenges the pandemic had created. Indeed, the former rebels running the interim government had to put aside their institution-building in order to spearhead relief operations in the region while dealing with periodic lockdowns and steering a less operational Bangsamoro Parliament. The MILF’s campaign for an extension eventually gained traction among national policymakers.

Another part of the rationale for extending the transition was the absence of an electoral framework to guide parliamentary polls in the new autonomous region. The responsibility for designing and passing an “electoral code” to put in place the “parliamentary style of government” that the 2014 peace deal foresaw for the Bangsamoro lies with the interim government. At present, however, only a draft of the code exists – a major hurdle considering that this document is meant not only to lay out the election procedure, but also to delineate parliamentary constituencies. The delay is at least partly due to the pandemic, as the BTA had to reduce the number of parliamentary sessions to discuss the legislation, and had even fewer opportunities to consult communities and local officials in the region due to travel restrictions. Some observers, however, opine that as the party leading the BTA and tasked with the code’s drafting, the MILF might have had an inherent interest in dragging out the process, since extending the transition period means they now have another three years before facing voters for the first time. While that is difficult to corroborate, the fact remains that electing 80 parliamentarians without clear guidelines would have proven challenging.

Why has the proposal been controversial?

The decision on whether or not to extend the transition has generated intense debate both in Mindanao and in Manila throughout 2021. Some critics argued that the MILF’s bid to postpone elections was driven by self-interest and would undermine democratic development in the Bangsamoro, highlighting that the move would result in another three years without “a popular mandate” since existing BTA members were appointed (by the president), not elected. Lawmakers who voted against the extension bill in Congress picked up this line of reasoning, even suggesting that the region hold a plebiscite on a potential extension.

More generally, the controversy stemmed from the Bangsamoro’s complex ethnic and political landscape. The region is a fragmented entity comprising non-contiguous provinces, a variety of ethno-linguistic groups, and a plethora of clans and guerrilla outfits. Kinship ties and Islam often bind diverse communities. But they also bring about loyalties to different movements, of which the MILF is the largest but hardly the only one. The ex-rebels are influential in central Mindanao among the Maguindanao and Maranao communities, but less so in the island provinces of the Sulu archipelago, a historical bastion of Moro nationalism populated by the Tausug ethnic group. Other areas are dominated by political clans. Finding consensus on any political issue in such a jumbled environment is by definition an arduous task; doing so on one as important as the final stretch of the peace process, even more so. Militant groups still active in the region have also tried to discredit the former rebels by attacking their religious credentials.

In this highly factious polity, the MILF campaigned hard to try to build a consensus, win public support and lobby for the proposal in Manila. Many non-MILF members of the BTA, including Moro National Liberation Front representatives, were already convinced of the need to extend the transition period, which gave the MILF campaign an added layer of legitimacy. In addition, among powerful Bangsamoro clans, the governors of the provinces of Tawi-Tawi (led by the Sali clan) and Lanao del Sur (led by the Alonto-Adiongs) were relatively consistent in supporting the bid, while the MILF’s outreach managed to sway other clan leaders. Perhaps even more decisive was the support of another veteran Moro lawmaker, one of Maguindanao’s congressional representatives, Esmael “Toto” Mangudadatu. The former provincial governor, who remains highly influential in Maguindanao province, sponsored the extension bill in the House of Representatives, promoting and defending it during interpellations until it passed.

The former guerrillas’ campaigning faced opposition from other influential local politicians across the region, however. One of the extension’s fiercest opponents was Abdusakur Tan, governor of Sulu province and a long-time critic of the MILF, who had campaigned against creating the BARMM in the past and strongly opposed resetting the 2022 parliamentary elections. Speaking on behalf of the Tausug ethno-linguistic group, Tan repeatedly criticised the interim government and its track record on the grounds that BARMM was neither inclusive nor “felt” by his people. Another sceptic was Cynthia Guiani-Sayadi, the outspoken mayor of Cotabato City, BARMM’s seat of government, who argued that seeking extension was the MILF’s poor excuse for its weak performance at the government’s helm.

The Philippine government ... has ... been quite supportive of the MILF’s plea for a longer transition period.

The Philippine government, including the security establishment, has on the other hand been quite supportive of the MILF’s plea for a longer transition period. Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, for example, personally endorsed the proposal. President Duterte has been more ambivalent. While he backed the call for an extension at first, he appeared to have second thoughts after influential Moro politicians visited Manila several times in early 2021, articulating their concerns about the BARMM’s “governance issues”. The president’s hesitation was also likely the result of conflicting legal opinions, with his advisers providing contradictory views regarding the need for a plebiscite to postpone elections. It is also plausible that Duterte was hedging his bets in the run-up to the 2022 presidential election: as the president’s party faces an uncertain political future with Duterte barred from running for a second term, ties to local Bangsamoro powerbrokers are vital in securing votes. Whatever the case, Duterte’s spokesperson emphasised that the president would remain “neutral” and leave the decision in the hands of Congress. The president also resisted a last-minute attempt by Moro elites opposing the extension to convince him to veto the bill.

What are the implications for the Bangsamoro peace process?

Resetting the elections and thereby doubling the transition period’s length should bring welcome breathing space to the new autonomous region after months of political uncertainty. Even if the decision is not a perfect solution and could have come earlier, it gives much needed time to the BTA to complete its roadmap, avoiding a hasty election in a fractured political landscape. The BARMM’s Chief Minister and MILF Chairperson Ahod “Al Haj Murad” Balawag Ebrahim promised that all Bangsamoro people “stand to benefit” from the extension, stressing the MILF’s aim to be inclusive.

Three more years should allow the MILF-led interim government to further strengthen institutions, pass key legislations that are still in the pipeline and develop a capable bureaucracy with better-trained civil servants, thereby ensuring the BARMM does not become another “failed experiment” like its predecessor, the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, which was created in 1989 but proved unable to bring lasting peace and development to the region. Delaying parliamentary elections should also enable a more mature political scene in the new autonomous region. Indeed, all the BARMM’s nascent political parties, including the MILF’s United Bangsamoro Justice Party, will benefit from extra time to boost their capacities and better articulate their political vision.

The extended transition period ... gives the central government and the MILF an opportunity to address some of the most urgent challenges in the peace process.

The extended transition period also gives the central government and the MILF an opportunity to address some of the most urgent challenges in the peace process, including disarming former rebels and ensuring the socio-economic development of war-torn areas in Mindanao. Referred to as “normalisation”, this aspect of the peace process is not directly linked to the political transition, but the vision of the 2014 peace agreement foresaw both tracks running in parallel. The holistic approach has been meandering as of late, however, with many projects falling behind schedule, and the pandemic diverting funds from the central government toward combating COVID-19. Manila and the ex-rebels also need to resolve misunderstandings about the compensation package for former fighters and technical details on the decommissioning process. Recent efforts of the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process to secure more funding are a welcome step in this regard, but given the high expectations for a peace dividend among the Bangsamoro population, both Manila and the MILF need to redouble their efforts. More time should be a powerful impulse to invigorate the process. The extension should not result in complacency, however, as slow implementation of both tracks might again nurture disillusionment and breed discontent in the Bangsamoro population.

Finally, a longer transition period could help the autonomous region in decisively asserting itself as a source of stability by curbing ongoing violence in pockets of the Bangsamoro. Communal conflicts over land and clan feuds, known as rido, have plagued the region for decades. Bangsamoro ministries are trying to tackle the challenge, but more time could allow them to develop more systematic approaches in addressing clan violence. Similarly, the interim government needs to confront the challenge of armed groups still operating outside the peace process. Jihadists and other militants that favour a violent solution to the region’s ills are on the retreat, but could quickly tap frustration among civilians and disgruntled MILF fighters alike should the BARMM not live up to expectations.

What happens next?

In the immediate term, perhaps nothing too significant. COVID-19 permitting, the Bangsamoro Parliament will continue its regular sessions while the MILF-led interim administration will carry on with day-to-day governance, focusing on pandemic relief (with infections once again surging) and moving ahead with deliberations on the priority codes.

More broadly, the extension raises the status and political capital of the MILF. But the former rebels still have the arduous task of building trust and legitimacy, especially among those who opposed the extension. While the parliamentary elections stand postponed, local elections – which are held countrywide – for gubernatorial and mayoral posts will go ahead as planned in 2022. Some of the region’s political clans have already reached out to the MILF for support, with the MILF backing their candidacies. But whether the MILF can fully bridge the gap created by the extension debate remains to be seen. Some consider its endorsement of candidates to be premature or even counterproductive.

The tense political climate resulting from the heated extension debate has also raised concerns about the peacefulness of the 2022 polls, following a number of violent incidents in the last weeks. Aware of the rifts between the MILF and some of the Bangsamoro clans, Duterte hosted a meeting of the two sides a few days before he enacted the extension bill, proposing a peace covenant to be signed between the parties at a later stage. This pact, if it materialises, would oblige all parties to abstain from violence in the 2022 Bangsamoro local elections.

With the current BTA members ending their term in 2022, a crucial development to watch for is whether Duterte will take the initiative to reappoint members of the Bangsamoro Parliament. Prior versions of the extension bill left the task up to Duterte’s successor. But according to available information, the final text stipulates that the current president “may appoint the eighty new interim members of the BTA who shall serve up to 30 June 2025 or until their successors shall have been elected and qualified”. Whether the Philippines’ first-ever president to hail from Mindanao will use this prerogative remains unclear, but it provides him with an opportunity to influence politics in his home region even beyond his term.