As the Philippines attempts to focus on its domestic issues, Manila has engaged in a conciliatory outreach to China. Now that it is focusing less energy on its territorial disputes with Beijing in the South China Sea, the country has more resources to devote to working on its domestic troubles. Unrest in the southern Philippines has been a major driver of instability in the country but, through a recent referendum win, Manila has taken a major step toward quieting its domestic conflicts.
The Philippines has taken a major step toward putting its house in order. On Jan. 25, the country's election commission ratified the results of this week's referendum in the restive Muslim Moro south, confirming that 87 percent of voters approved the creation of a Bangsamoro Autonomous Region. Thanks to concessions from the Philippine government as part of a 2014 peace deal, the region will be granted the increased local control that its residents have long demanded.
The plebiscite was held in five provinces and two cities, though not all areas approved the measure. Isabela City in Basilan rejected the proposal by a small margin, meaning it will not be included in the new region. Sulu province, on the other hand, will be included despite its "no" vote because it voted as a unit alongside four other provinces, all of which voted in favor of the autonomous region.
Why It Matters
The overwhelming public support for the law can be taken as an affirmation that voters broadly back the conciliatory position that mainstream Moro militant leaders have adopted. However, broad swaths of the population still favor a more extremist position, and the threat of terrorism is very much alive in Mindanao. The region is still under martial law, and its deep geographic and clan divisions mean the ground is fertile for further militant or terrorist activity. A bomb plot was foiled in the lead-up to the referendum, at least two grenade attacks were carried out on the day of the vote, and a firefight broke out in Lanao del Sur between Philippine troops and Islamic State militants at the tail end of the week.
By obtaining such a landslide approval for the Bangsamoro Autonomous region, the Philippines has taken a major step toward quieting the conflict in Mindanao.
The desire to free resources for dealing with internal issues was, at least in part, the driving force behind Manila's attempts to resolve its territorial disputes with Beijing in the South China Sea. The centurieslong conflict in Muslim Mindanao has been chief among these domestic problems, alongside an ongoing communist insurgency and deep economic disparities among regions. By obtaining such a landslide approval for the Bangsamoro Autonomous region, the Philippines has taken a major step toward quieting the conflict in Mindanao. Among other impacts, greater peace in Mindanao could mean that Manila will be able to devote more troops to dealing with communist insurgents elsewhere.
Internationally speaking, the vote could also give the Philippines more resources to use in its outreach to China, though this will take some time yet. If and when the region becomes stable enough, Chinese investment will be a valuable tool for developing Mindanao's infrastructure and alleviating internal inequality — provided China can overcome local obstacles and deliver. However, some voices in Philippine politics are still clamoring for Manila to more proactively protect its maritime claims in the South China Sea and persuade the United States to commit to defending Philippine interests there. The Philippine-U.S. military relationship suffered a lull following the 2016 election of President Rodrigo Duterte, but the relationship is now recovering as both countries look for ways to counter China's rise in the region.
The referendum is a major milestone for the 2014 peace deal between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) militant group. The agreement has been marred by legislative setbacks and the Islamic State takeover of a city in Mindanao, but the successful referendum has paved the way for future votes. On Feb. 6, additional areas in Mindanao will hold their own referendums to decide whether they, too, will join the new Bangsamoro region, beginning a yearlong transition period before the new region is finally implemented. The Bangsamoro Autonomous Region will hold its first regional election in 2022 and, in the meantime, the MILF will helm an interim government.