The Philippines: Is the Peace Process in Muslim Mindanao Collapsing?

8 MINS READFeb 11, 2016 | 09:31 GMT
The Moro Islamic Liberation Front's chairman attends a firearms decommissioning ceremony in the Philippines' Sultan Kudarat province in June 2015.
Forecast Highlights

  • The failure of the Philippine Congress to approve a core part of a recent peace deal with rebels in the southern Philippines will complicate the fragile settlement and risk at least a short-term surge in violence.
  • The need to devote security resources to combat other internal threats and to reorient its defense posture to external threats — namely those posed by China — will prevent Manila from abandoning the peace process altogether, regardless of who wins the presidency in May. 
  • Evolving dynamics within the various militant camps will also continue to open opportunities for a long-term resolution.

Peace has long eluded the predominantly Muslim areas of the southern Philippines. For centuries, an ever-shifting mix of rebel groups have waged violence, leaving more than 150,000 people dead in the past four decades alone. The government's efforts to stabilize the archipelagic region took another hit last week. With an eye on the elections in May, the 16th Congress of the Philippines adjourned without approving the Bangsamoro Basic Law, a core aspect of a comprehensive peace agreement signed in 2014 with the strongest remaining insurgent group and the one most capable of governing the region, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). This effectively killed any chance of passage while President Benigno Aquino III, a main driver of the peace process, is in office. Whether the next government will revive the legislation when it takes power in July is unclear. Aquino's chosen successor, Mar Roxas, is trailing in the polls, and none of the other candidates have demonstrated much intent to spend political capital on the proposed law in its current form.

Violence spiked in 2008 after the Philippine Supreme Court ruled an earlier version of the law unconstitutional, displacing an estimated 600,000 people in Mindanao. So does the collapse in momentum herald a similar surge in fighting?

Near-Term Uncertainty

As in much of Southeast Asia, an array of ethnicities, clans and religions sharing a fractured geography has historically complicated stability in the Philippines. In the isolated southern region of Muslim Mindanao, a former sultanate with strong geopolitical ties to Malaysian Borneo and parts of Indonesia, local communities have long taken up arms to resist subjugation by the distant central government or foreign occupiers. In the modern era, Manila has sought to slowly whittle the southern insurgency by signing accords with parts of groups, turning factions against one another, and isolating the fractured components. This strategy has divided and weakened the separatist movement, but the splintered environment has been less than conducive to a comprehensive settlement. As a result, violence has persisted despite agreements such as a landmark 1996 accord granting control over a semi-autonomous region to the MILF's parent organization and now rival, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). 

The 2014 Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro is Manila's most ambitious attempt at a lasting resolution. At its core is the Bangsamoro Basic Law, which would create a MILF-led administrative region to be known as Bangsamoro, covering the southwest of Mindanao and nearby islands. In addition to a largely independent parliament, police force and civil judiciary, the proposed law would grant the region a greater share of resource and tax revenues.

The Aquino administration submitted the draft law to Congress in September 2014, but it immediately ran into opposition from Philippine nationalists and drew Supreme Court concerns about its constitutionality — as well as resistance from holdout separatists in Mindanao. Deliberations were suspended altogether in January 2015 when 44 police commandos were killed during a counterterrorism operation in the ostensibly MILF-controlled municipality of Mamasapano. Government and MILF leaders scrambled to keep the deliberations on track and were helped by the killing of Abdul Basit Usman, a notorious bombmaker with links to multiple jihadist groups in Southeast Asia, for which the MILF claimed credit. But even this was not enough to overcome political resistance in Manila.

In the near term, the failure to pass the Bangsamoro Basic Law will heighten the risk of violence in the region as various groups recalculate and seek leverage amid the uncertainty. The delay will halt efforts to disarm MILF fighters — an already tenuous process (fewer than 100 weapons have reportedly been turned over so far). It will also help holdout groups recruit in Muslim Mindanao, tapping into widespread skepticism about Manila's sincerity. The congressional adjournment sparked protests by Bangsamoro youths in the southern city of Marawi. Attacks by the Bangsamoro Freedom Fighters (BIFF), a radical MILF splinter group that formed after the 2008 Supreme Court decision, have picked up in recent weeks. (In fact, a high-ranking BIFF commander was captured earlier this week.)

MILF leaders warn that if they cannot demonstrate the tangible benefits of the peace process, they will lose the ability to prevent disaffected younger generations from taking up arms and challenging the MILF's nascent authority in the region. Indeed, the botched Mamasapano raid highlighted the difficulty the group will have controlling its own fighters or policing the area. The incident also illustrated the overlap in membership between the MILF and the BIFF.

The delay may also mean a missed opportunity to take advantage of a shift in the MNLF, the MILF's separatist rivals. The MNLF has long opposed the Bangsamoro Basic Law, which would effectively replace the 1996 administrative structure that favors the secularist group. In 2013, while the law was being finalized in Malaysia, MNLF fighters attacked Zamboanga City to demonstrate their opposition. But the group has appeared increasingly divided and territorially isolated. And over the summer, an MNLF faction began calling for the law's passage, seeing cooperation with the MILF as its best chance to gain a share of regional power and material wealth unlocked by the law. Nonetheless, the MNLF's core welcomed the failure to approve the draft law and is still apparently allied with jihadist group Abu Sayyaf and the BIFF. Stalled progress on Bangsamoro may weaken the factions more willing to cooperate in favor of those that sense an opportunity to undermine their Moro rivals.

Long-Term Imperatives for Peace

But the peace process in Mindanao has always been, at best, about incremental gains, and it will continue to lurch forward in fits and starts despite the latest setback. Though lawmakers are demanding changes to the Bangsamoro Basic Law — the sort that would threaten its prospects in an eventual referendum in the new region — there have been few calls for a withdrawal from the broader peace deal altogether. After the Congress adjourned, the MILF pledged to remain committed to the peace deal, and the group resumed dialogue with the Manila's negotiators on Feb. 10 in Kuala Lumpur. These symbolic gestures reflect, in part, the longer-term dynamics that will continue to generate momentum for a solution.

Foremost among Manila’s imperatives is the need to free up resources to deal with other security threats, both internal and external. Over the longer term, the Philippines needs to reorient its security posture from internal stabilization to external defense. Even though the country consists of more than 7,000 islands and some 36,000 kilometers (22,000 miles) of coastline — and despite the weight of Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea — security spending in the country is still focused on domestic threats. In 2015, for example, the army received three times the funding of the navy.

But the army's attention will continue to be pulled in multiple directions, reducing its ability to reorient toward external defense until it can deal with threats at home. A lasting peace settlement with the MILF would free the Philippine military to focus its divide-and-conquer tactics elsewhere. Most concerning to Manila is the persistence of the 4,000-strong New People's Army, a Maoist group that operates with much greater range than the Moro groups and often targets business interests, earning it greater attention from stakeholders in the capital. The government also wants to deny recruiting grounds or space to operate to local militants aligned with or inspired by the Islamic State, a fear Bangsamoro Basic Law advocates on both sides have voiced repeatedly in recent months. As in Indonesia, this is a real but often overstated threat, but the military is nonetheless keen to focus on surgical operations against more virulent jihadists.

Powerful economic incentives to stabilize the region remain as well. Central to Manila's argument for the Bangsamoro law has been Mindanao's wealth of untapped mineral resources, namely gold, copper, nickel, manganese, lead, zinc and iron ore deposits, plus oil and natural gas potential. Violence in Mindanao has been linked explicitly to difficulties attracting the foreign investment needed to exploit these resources. In addition to its benefits to the broader Philippine economy, the Bangsamoro law would provide a framework through which to dole out patronage to woo the support of local warlords and political oligarchs and isolate the holdouts.

For its part, the MILF cannot afford to miss its best chance at reaping the fruits of its decades-long fight. Since dropping its demand for full independence in 2003, the group has transformed itself into a primarily political organization. Its moderate leadership is aging, and its militant capabilities have eroded somewhat. At this point, withdrawing from the peace agreement would threaten an opportunity for the MILF to solidify local support for its fragile authority by delivering greater autonomy to the region. This is why the group has remained engaged and continues to make concessions despite seeing Manila repeatedly renege on agreements. And it will return to the negotiating table if the next administration in Manila opts to redraft the Bangsamoro law. Over the past two years, it has become increasingly evident that MILF leaders lack the leverage to walk away — or the will to return to a full-fledged armed struggle.

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