Editor's Note: The following piece was first published in September 2014 and contains key analysis relevant to recent developments.
Peace is not imminent in the predominantly Muslim areas of the southern Philippines, but government efforts to stabilize the archipelagic region took a major step forward this week. On Sept. 10, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III submitted to Congress a draft law creating a new autonomous government for the southern region, to be known as Bangsamoro, ending a tense three-month period of deliberations with rebel negotiators over the law's finer details. The proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law is the product of nearly two decades of violence-marred negotiations between the government and Moro rebels. It aims to address some of the underlying drivers of the violence by giving the region a greater share of resource and tax revenues, in addition to a largely independent parliament, police force and civil judiciary.
The draft still faces steep legislative and political hurdles, as well as lingering questions about its compliance with the Philippine Constitution. Even if fully implemented, the law wouldn't completely pacify the restive region, which is home to numerous other militant groups, clan-based blood feuds and entrenched criminal networks that will continue to deter the development of the region's vast economic potential. Nonetheless, mounting economic and political incentives, a decline in militant capabilities, and Manila's fundamental geopolitical imperatives will continue to generate momentum for a solution.
The peace process in Muslim Mindanao has been lurching forward for decades, despite routine disruptions by rebels seeking to gain leverage in negotiations or derail them altogether, as well as political and judicial complications. By hammering out an agreement on the law's most contentious details with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front — the strongest group and the one most capable of governing the region — Manila hopes that the peace process can finally move beyond negotiations, reducing the ability of holdout militants to influence the shape of the deal through violence. The primary obstacles to passage are now procedural: The Aquino administration is urging Congress to pass the law by early 2015, positioning it to be ratified in a referendum in Bangsamoro by the end of the president's term in 2016.
Constitutional Questions and Continuing Complications
A key remaining issue is constitutionality. In 2008, the Supreme Court invalidated a peace deal reached with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front that was seen as nearly identical to a cease-fire agreement finalized in March. Rebel negotiators have long contended that charter change would be needed to allot Bangsamoro the level of autonomy agreed upon in cease-fire negotiations. The Aquino administration asserts that the constitution can accommodate the new law, but repeated delays in submitting the bill to Congress suggest a lack of confidence that it will pass Supreme Court inspection. For much of the past three months, the deal appeared on the brink of unraveling while the palace reviewed the draft, at one point revising or removing several key passages, forcing negotiators to reopen talks on contentious points that had already been settled. Philippine constitutional scholars are divided on the issue.
Should the Supreme Court invalidate the law, either the rebels would be expected to accept a diluted deal, or the Aquino administration would need to push for a charter change — a daunting task that would face opposition from Philippine nationalists and tie the fate of the law to other political issues amid a campaign season. Similarly, Congress could demand changes that would complicate the Bangsamoro referendum. Any of these scenarios would increase the risk of violence, albeit not to the degree that followed similar setbacks in the past.
Even if the law clears these hurdles, autonomy alone will not stabilize Bangsamoro. Any new government would struggle to assert control over the fractious region, home to myriad ethno-linguistic groups and a geographic landscape ill-suited for unity. Militant groups sidelined during the recent peace negotiations are unlikely to recognize the legitimacy of a regional government led by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, particularly in the Sulu archipelago, the stronghold of the rival Moro National Liberation Front (the Moro Islamic Liberation Front's parent organization), which rejects the new law on grounds that it will abrogate its own agreement for semi-autonomy reached with the government in 1996. Meanwhile, more radical groups — namely Abu Sayyaf and the communist New People's Army — will continue attacks that will complicate the implementation of the law, irrespective of whatever progress is made between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.
Ultimately, major investment and development will be needed to build a sustainable peace, as the regional economy has floundered amid the insecurity. Muslim Mindanao has a per capita gross domestic product of around 40 percent of the nationwide average, with unemployment reaching 48 percent in 2012. The region regularly suffers from blackouts that make manufacturing unattractive, while the prevalence of kidnappings, bombings and extortion scares off foreign investors. In the late 1990s, for example, the Philippine National Oil Co. and Malaysia's Petronas withdrew from an oil and natural gas play in territory controlled by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, reportedly due to threats from the rebel group and other local warlords. On Aug. 24, fighters with the New People's Army — which routinely targets foreign companies in the region — raided two Del Monte banana plantations. Any potential investor will also need to navigate unresolved clan conflicts and historical territorial disputes, pervasive corruption and entrenched criminal networks led by local warlords and political oligarchs.
Forces Compelling the Peace Process
Nonetheless, the peace process has repeatedly proved resilient to judicial and militant complications and will continue to do so. Violence spiked after the 2008 ruling, but within four years the two sides had inked another framework deal that laid the groundwork for the new Bangsamoro law. This, too, sparked violence, with the Moro National Liberation Front battling the military in Zamboanga City for three weeks in 2013, displacing more than 100,000 people. Simultaneously, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (which broke away from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in 2008 in opposition to the cease-fire negotiations) and Abu Sayyaf launched attacks elsewhere. Those also failed to derail the talks, as have regular attacks since.
The resilience of the stabilization process stems from several factors: First, there are indeed powerful economic incentives for peace. The region is home to as much as 70 percent of the country's untapped mineral sources — upwards of $300 billion in gold, copper, nickel, manganese, lead, zinc and iron ore deposits. It also has oil and natural gas potential and is attractive for tourism. Development of these resources would fund the massive infrastructure investment needed for the Philippines to meet its long-term economic imperatives and take advantage of emerging regional opportunities. The resource wealth may intensify local rivalries, but it can also be used to win cooperation from local warlords and political oligarchs while isolating holdouts from patronage flows. To generate public backing for the law, Philippine leaders have been consistently touting the region's economic promise, including the fact that foreign direct investment has surged over the past year in Mindanao in anticipation of peace.
Meanwhile, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which dropped its demand for full independence in 2003 and has since evolved into a primarily political organization, cannot afford to miss even a fleeting chance to capitalize on its efforts. Its moderate leadership is aging, and it lacks the militant capabilities it once had. If pressed for further concessions, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front could seek leverage by aligning with its more radical rivals, particularly the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters. However, the peace process has already sparked some development in areas controlled by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, weakening public support for any potential return to violence. At this point, backing out of the deal would threaten an opportunity for the Moro Islamic Liberation Front to deliver autonomy to the region while entrenching itself in power. This is why Aquino's alterations to the draft law did not sink it, despite generating a strong rhetorical backlash from rebel negotiators.
Divisions among the other various militant groups in Muslim Mindanao will make for a weaker rebel challenge overall, albeit one within which radical wings and shifting alignments pose continued challenges for Manila. Though the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters have become increasingly active since the beginning of the year, the group only controls a few hundred fighters. Abu Sayyaf has essentially evolved into little more than a kidnapping and extortion syndicate. For its part, the Moro National Liberation Front appears increasingly divided, isolated and irrelevant. While some Moro National Liberation Front leaders still refuse to negotiate, others (particularly those located in the Moro Islamic Liberation Front-dominated central Mindanao) have been making conciliatory gestures. Indeed, were it to heed calls from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, Manila and the international community to join the new Bangsamoro government, the Moro National Liberation Front would form a strong minority bloc with, by certain metrics, greater control over regional resources than it had under the 1996 deal.
For the Philippine government, progress in Mindanao has become increasingly imperative as the country gradually shifts its defense posture. The new law will free the military to focus its divide-and-conquer tactics on the holdout groups, while the opportunity to control local rebel-dominated industries will likely keep military leaders onboard. The government's ultimate imperatives are geopolitical: It is facing diplomatic pressure from regional allies such as Malaysia (which has its own security concerns about Philippine rebels) and the United States (which provides considerable military support) to implement a settlement. More important, with tensions in the South China Sea growing, the Philippines must find a way to shift its focus from internal stabilization to its external vulnerabilities and maritime position. Unchecked insurgencies would make Muslim Mindanao ripe for foreign exploitation and a perpetual drain on military resources while undermining the economic growth needed to fund military modernization and prepare the country for more critical threats.