Four years after it signed a peace deal that pacified a powerful insurgent force on the southern island of Mindanao, the Philippine government has finally made good on its key promise by enacting a law that allows an expanded, more powerful, locally governed region for its Moro Muslim minority.
The long delay in the passage of the Bangsamoro Organic Law allowed the Islamic State to make inroads in the restive region, and last year insurgents linked to the group took over Marawi City for six months. In the vast maritime space of Southeast Asia, extremist activity in the Philippines can echo far beyond remote Mindanao. Now that it has started building a new autonomous region, the Philippine government will need to stick the landing. The path to full implementation of the new law is open to risks of further delays, deepened ethnic and clan fault lines, and desperation on the part of marginalized militants.
At the start of 2018, Stratfor forecast that the Philippines would take a different tack from Vietnam in the South China Sea, choosing to maintain its conciliatory outreach to China and focusing on its internal issues. The government's fulfillment of a key pledge to a powerful Moro militant group confirms this forecast, but it also portends a continuation of this inward focus as Manila works to ensure continued stability.
A History of Violence
In a geographically fragmented country with a long history of insurgency and ethnic division, the southern Philippines has stood out for its sustained opposition to the central government in Manila. Unlike other regional movements, the history of Mindanao's rebellion must be measured in centuries, not decades. The Muslim ethnic Moros of the southern Philippines have long seen themselves as distinct from the Roman Catholic majority and have pushed for independence or at least autonomy.
The Philippine government has pursued a strategy of using military force to exert greater control over the south while also offering political sweeteners to win the region's cooperation. The Aug. 6 ceremonial signing of the Bangsamoro Organic Law by President Rodrigo Duterte was a benchmark in the drive to whittle down the militant threat. This signature triggered the establishment of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, which will be home to 4 million people. A similar region already occupies a similar footprint to the new autonomous region — the eastern fringes of the Moro Gulf on Mindanao as well as the nearby island provinces of the Sulu Archipelago. This Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) was put in place in 1989 as part of a peace deal with the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and expanded in 2001.
Because of fractures within militant groups, the formation of this region did not end insurgent activity. In addition to numerous other insurgent movements, a powerful splinter group of the MNLF, the 20,000-strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), remained a key threat in Mindanao. The government pursued a 15-year-long peace process that culminated in a 2014 deal promising a new autonomous region. But enacting this promise proved difficult given concerns that carving out more political power for local Moro politicians could undermine the central government and overall security. After a high-profile clash in 2015 at Mamasapano in the south, Philippine lawmakers failed to push the pledge into law. The delay put the process on unsteady ground for three years until Duterte finally secured the law's passage.
Out With the Old
The Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao will replace the ARMM with something broader and deeper than that envisioned in 1989. Seen by Duterte as a potential blueprint for his grandiose (and now embattled) federalist vision, the new Bangsamoro region will have unprecedented powers to direct its own affairs. This enhanced autonomy is the result of long negotiations among lawmakers and representatives of Moro political forces to delineate the region's powers, reserving control of monetary policy, foreign relations, defense and security to the central government. This will go a long way in co-opting militant leadership and quieting long-standing criticism of the central government. Unlike the ARMM, the new region will feature greater political participation and will be governed by a directly elected parliament, which will select the region's chief minister. Lawmakers will also have discretion in setting the region's budget, with a greater share of local taxes as well as an annual unconditional block grant of 5 percent of total national revenue.
The Bangsamoro will also potentially expand the ARMM geographically. Its core area is meant to match the ARMM as well as the excluded cities of Cotabato and Isabela, with inhabitants voting on whether to opt in. Further plebiscites could see municipalities in neighboring Cotabato and Lanao del Norte defect to join the Bangsamoro. And there would also be a provision for some areas adjacent to the Bangsamoro to elect to join the region with a petition of 10 percent of voters or a local government resolution. All in all, this matches quite neatly the initial expectations of militant leaders and is meant to delegitimize calls by more extremist groups for further violence against the government.
The Long and Winding Road
The Bangsamoro law's passage — or even its full implementation — will not bring a clean end to unrest in the southern Philippines. The next steps will be critical. The first will be a plebiscite in the prospective components of the new autonomous region. By law, this step will need to take place between November and January. After this vote, there will be a one-year transition period until the final implementation of the region. Up until two months before the Bangsamoro's complete rollout, areas adjacent to the core region will be allowed to decide whether to opt in. Given the deep geographic, clan and familial fault lines within the Moro ethnic community, this process is rife with risks for acrimony, delays, politicking and potential attacks. This could be particularly pronounced in the Sulu Archipelago, which has a distinct history from mainland Mindanao. An unusually large attack on July 31 in Basilan claimed by the Islamic State could be an early attempt to sow discord in this region. Islamic State-linked militants in Lanao del Sur and Maguindanao provinces also continue to harass security forces and threaten urban areas with attacks.
And, as the window for implementation opens, groups attempting to delegitimize government cooperation will become more active. The gradual demobilization of MILF fighters will present particular risks here, because they will provide a potential recruiting pool for extremist factions. This process will begin after the completion of the plebiscite with demobilization of 30 percent of fighters; an additional 65 percent will lay down their arms when the region is put in place. Recruitment by Philippine police and the Bangsamoro government will absorb some of these fighters, but many will need to find new roles. In this it will be critical for the Bangsamoro government to provide economic opportunity and attract investment — a tall order given the particularly low levels of development in the core Bangsamoro areas.
Even once ratification is completed, the Bangsamoro region will likely face a test in the nation's highest court. Time and again, concerns about constitutionality have dogged the law's long, tedious drafting. Despite efforts to alleviate these concerns, the law still could go before the Philippine Supreme Court. In fact, the Supreme Court struck down the earliest iteration of the Bangsamoro region in 2008, the Bangsamoro Juridical Entity. A ruling by the court delaying or harpooning the new autonomous region could provide an opening for more extremist voices in the southern Philippines.
And even if fully realized, the region is at best a management tool for unrest in the southern Philippines. Mindanao's porous maritime borders, underdevelopment and long legacy of insurgency mean it will likely remain a militant hotbed for some time. The co-optation or grinding down of militant groups is a slow strategy that will be rife with setbacks. But quieting the long-burning Moro insurgencies will be critical for the Philippines to get its internal affairs in order so it can turn toward dealing with its external challenges.