FREELY Spoilers to Philippine peace
deal By George D Gorman
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October 7, 2012, President Benign Aquino succeeded
where other Philippine leaders failed by forging
an agreement with the rebel Moro Islamic
Liberation Front (MILF) on a framework for peace.
Although lauded at home and by international
observers, the implications of the agreement must
not be overstated. Peace in Mindanao and the Sulu
archipelago will remain elusive due to a bevy of
shortcomings and disparate actors that threaten to
spoil the process.
The agreement’s newly
created “Bangsamoro” region will replace the 1989
Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). The
ARMM is where the lion’s
share of conflict occurs, particularly between
rival clans, on the southern island of Mindanao.
Intended to be finalized in 2016, the agreement
allocates only five Muslim majority municipalities
to the MILF, compared to 12 non-MILF mixed
The MILF’s nominal slice
of “Muslim Mindanao” is a product of displacement
through decades of Christian immigration and
internal-external power struggles. With the MILF
exercising control over less than 15% of the
population of Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago,
meeting the demands of the MILF addresses only one
obstacle confronting the government’s efforts to
subdue violence in the country’s south.
The unsettled question of the indigenous
non-Muslim Lumad people was neglected throughout
the nine-year government-MILF negotiation process.
Expelled from their ancestral lands during the
American colonial period and post-independence
conflicts thereafter, the Philippine government
has slowly recognized the customary land rights of
these nine million internally displaced people.
The Philippine government has awarded 158
ancestral land titles to 918,500 minority
inhabitants in Mindanao since 1998. The Lumad
people’s bitterness toward the current peace
process arises from three factors: (1) the
government’s blatant disregard of their landless
plight as well as the preservation of their
distinctive identity in a future autonomous zone;
(2) the Lumad’s alarm at the prospect of being
ruled by Muslim leaders, which is similar to their
ancestors’ subjugation under the sultanate; and
(3) the lack of value given to non-violence as
compared to the perceived benefits of taking up
arms. Without addressing the grievances of the
Lumads and assuaging their concerns, government
initiatives to achieve long-term stability in
Mindanao could falter.
It is also risky to
overlook the rebel Moro National Liberation Front
(MNLF), another potential spoiler of the new peace
accommodation with the MILF. Since the September
1996 agreement between Philippine President Fidel
Ramos and the MNLF to end hostilities, the MNLF
has been integrated into the political structure
of the Sulu archipelago and central Mindanao
through decades of hard-fought bargaining.
However, the MNLF has resented and even opposed
the MILF’s attempt to create a “Bangsamoro”
region, which could sap the MNLF’s power base.
MNLF leader Nur Misuari’s threats to resume armed
insurrection carry significant weight and threaten
to destabilize the region.
settlers also pose an omnipresent threat to the
stability of Mindanao. Christian militias have
been one of the worst perpetrators of bloodshed in
the south as Christian elites have exploited
militias for land-grabs, enhancing their power
centers and undercutting previous peace efforts.
With an abundance of government-provided
unregistered automatic weapons distributed during
times of heightened tension between the government
and Muslim rebels over the past four decades, a
sweeping cleanup is needed.
challenge awaits the government in reining in and
disarming these armed militias and resolving land
issues between Christian settlers and their Lumad
and Moro counterparts. The government must
simultaneously instill trust among the Christian
settlers that government authorities can provide
adequate security to their communities. Of equal
note, the MILF, an organization plagued with
divisions, will be challenged with the task of
decommissioning weapons from over 11,000 former
MILF rebels and integrating them into a
consolidated civilian authority which they have
institutions of the Philippines have been largely
monopolized by an oligarchy of long-established
families, and Mindanao is no different. While
desperate measures are needed to consolidate
democratic institutions and dislodge warring clans
in Mindanao, this government-clan patronage
network is unlikely to abate as Aquino aims to
cement his legacy and ensure that the MILF
disarms. Nor will the state likely extricate
itself from vested local interests in Mindanao.
However, with less demand on state resources to
tackle an MILF insurgency, there is an opportunity
for strengthening rule of law in areas
traditionally dominated by clan militias.
Yet the many obstacles to long-term peace
have tangible solutions. In fact, a juxtaposition
of peace mechanisms are already in place but
depend on government-MILF relations and MILF
political will to integrate into civilian
Fundamental to declines in
Mindanao violence in recent years has been the
Coordinating Committee on the Cessation of
Hostilities (CCCH) and the International
Monitoring Team (IMT) that have helped to avoid
surprise government-MILF clashes, boosted joint
investigations, and resolved violations and
conflicts before they escalated.
Hoc Joint Action Group (AHJAG) has facilitated
informal cooperation between the government and
the MILF to investigate and tackle criminal
networks, bandits, and “rogue” commanders.
Institutionalizing these peace mechanisms with the
agreement’s forthcoming Joint Normalization
Committee (JNC) offers one step toward maintaining
communication and cooperation to link these two
parties’ joint stakes in the stability of
Transitioning from a
loosely-aligned militant organization to a
political party is a challenge unto itself. With
the establishment of nascent democratic
institutions under the Bangsamoro Transition
Authority, the MILF will be pressed to distinguish
itself from the MNLF’s kleptocratic management of
its autonomous political institutions and deliver
much-anticipated social and healthcare services to
alleviate the plight of poverty-stricken Moros.
Although MILF leaders have called for “the
exploitation of our very own abundant resources”
in their region, the MILF government will be
dependent on an underdeveloped private sector and
immediate extractive resources (eg, timber, cash
crops) in the interim to fuel trade and generate
state revenue. Mindanao’s mineral resources, worth
an estimated US$1 trillion, offer a direct revenue
stream to a cash-strapped MILF government.
However, economic growth through mining
and off-shore oil development is a 10-15 year
commitment prior to production and would be
reliant on MILF deliverables of rule of law,
institutional stability, investment incentives,
and a clear revenue-sharing agreement between the
MILF and government – a disheartening challenge
for a nascent civilian government.
strengthening third party consultation, an absence
of mutual relations building with periphery
communities will likely spark spillovers of
violence on the new Bangsamoro border. Clan
rivalries, MNLF provocateurs, Christian settlers
and other possible internal and external
malevolent forces threaten the newly formed
interests in the status quo will confront the
government-MILF peace framework, irrespective of a
comprehensive agreement aimed at settling
grievances and allowing for wealth-sharing. The
multitude of subversive actors in Mindanao’s
political scene makes the MILF treaty only one
step in what still promises to be a long process
of quelling violence in the southern Philippines.
George Gorman is an East Asia
and Pacific affairs consultant based in Washington
DC. He can be contacted at
Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows
guest writers to have their say. Please click here
if you are interested in contributing.