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. Keeping a circumspect eye on the elections in May, the 16th Congress of the Philippines adjourned without approving a core aspect of a comprehensive peace agreement — the Bangsamoro Basic Law — signed in 2014 with the strongest remaining insurgent group 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, remains in office. Whether the next government will revive the legislation when it takes power in July is unclear.
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?
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. 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. And it will return to the negotiating table if the next administration in Manila — whose current administration reneges on agreements forcing repeated concessions from MILF — 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 even the will to return to a full-fledged armed struggle.
In the near term, the failure to pass the Bangsamoro Basic Law will heighten the risk of violence in the region as various groups recalibrate advantage amid the uncertainty. The delay will halt efforts to disarm MILF fighters — an already tenuous process. 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. 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.