Manila and Moro Rebels Strike a Deal

  • Photo Courtesy of mark navales
    Oct 12, 2012

    Philippine president Benigno Aquino announced on October 7 that Manila has forged a preliminary peace agreement with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), generating widespread hope that the decades-long conflict in the country’s south might finally be resolved.

    The armed conflict stems from the predominantly Catholic central government’s historical alienation of Filipino Muslims, or Moros, on the southern island of Mindanao. The secessionist movement began in the late 1960s, proliferating into an array of splinter groups with disparate objectives. The conflict has resulted in over 120,000 deaths, with millions more internally displaced, and has wrought economic devastation on the region.

    The latest agreement is the best chance yet at a lasting solution to the insurgency and has optimists across the Philippines and abroad hoping for an economic windfall. Mindanao is rich in resources, largely untapped, and investors are already eager to set up shop. But most importantly, the peace created by a lasting agreement in the south could allow Manila to commit much-needed resources to infrastructure investment and social spending. Both the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank in recent weeks raised their growth forecasts for the Philippine economy, but those new estimates might prove conservative if a Mindanao peace accord allows the country to unlock its full potential.

    Q1: What is the MILF?

    A1: The MILF is a descendant organization of the older Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), which was founded in 1969 with the aim of establishing an independent Muslim state on Mindanao. After decades of armed struggle, the MNLF moderated its demand for full independence and reached a preliminary agreement with the government for regional autonomy, prompting hardline elements within the organization to break away and form the MILF in 1978. The Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) was created in 1989, and the MNLF reached a final peace settlement with Manila in 1996. Throughout all of this, the MILF continued its struggle for full independence, broken only by a brief cease-fire from 1997 to 2000.

    The 2000s saw on-again, off-again peace talks between the government and the MILF. The first breakthrough in these talks came with a government concession to offer unprecedented autonomy and self-determination for Mindanao in exchange for the MILF’s dropping its demand for full independence. This led to the signing of the aborted 2008 Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MoA-AD), which fell apart amid popular opposition and a challenge in the Supreme Court. The breakthrough, however, paved the way for the current agreement, which was reached after years of negotiations facilitated by Malaysia.

    Q2: What has been agreed upon?

    Negotiators for the Philippine government and MILF met for four days of peace talks in Malaysia and produced a Framework Agreement for Bangsamoro. Bangsamoro will be a self-governing polity in Mindanao that will replace the current ARMM. The agreement is a roadmap for peace to be completed by 2016. In exchange, the MILF has pledged to end its insurgency and disarm its 12,000 rebel fighters.

    Under the new framework, Bangsamoro will exercise self-governance within Mindanao. Citizens will elect representatives from parties in a parliamentary-style system, and those representatives will select the chief minister, or head of state. The new polity will regulate and determine its own taxes and exercise greater leadership in internal security. The agreement also gives the Bangsamoro government the right to enforce Sharia law among Moros. A 15-person Transition Commission will work out the details of these provisions as it drafts a new constitution, which will be submitted to the Philippine Congress for approval.

    The central government will retain exclusive governing rights over foreign affairs, external defense and security, monetary policy, and citizenship.

    The blueprint addresses revenue and power sharing, both sensitive issues in a region that has been politically and economically marginalized for many years. The framework provides for “just and equitable” sharing of revenues from the utilization of national resources, including gold and timber, estimated to be worth more than $300 billion in Mindanao. There is also an explicit understanding that the region will enjoy a greater share of national power, the details of which will be worked out during the drafting of the constitution.

    Lastly, the deal includes a “referendum guarantee.” This ensures each area of Mindanao the right to democratically decide whether or not to join the Bangsamoro.

    Q3: What is different this time around?

    Bangsamoro will replace the dysfunctional ARMM, the territory established in 1989. The deal also builds on the failed 2008 MoA-AD, which sought a similar compromise with the MILF.

    The agreement enjoys a level of transparency and consultation nonexistent in the MoA-AD. Critics of that agreement denounced the opaque nature of the negotiations and resulting agreement, which devolved into massive protests and violence that impelled the Supreme Court to overturn it. Aquino lauded the openness of the current peace process and immediately posted the entire agreement on the government’s website. He also assured seats for the MNLF and MILF on the Transition Commission in an attempt to keep the agreement as inclusive as possible.

    The new deal also ensures that non-Muslim communities in Mindanao maintain the right to self-determination. The MoA-AD faced major censure from Catholics who said the absence of plebiscites risked engulfing non-Muslim communities without their consent. Aquino’s roadmap allays these concerns by including the referendum guarantee and provisions to protect the rights of non-Muslims in Bangsamoro.

    Thanks to these lessons learned, the new agreement has so far avoided the widespread backlash that killed its predecessor.

    Q4: What issues remain?

    A4: The roadmap remains only that—a framework for more detailed negotiations in the future. The lack of practical policy prescriptions for revenue and power sharing has engendered skepticism that the negotiations may break down in the coming years. The agreement has entrenched the values of greater equality, but the devil is in the details, which have yet to be formulated.

    Some question whether the creation of a new autonomous polity requires an amendment to the Philippine constitution, which lays out a presidential system of national government. The Aquino administration has vocally refuted this claim, asserting that nothing in the constitution explicitly forbids a ministerial system at the regional level. The government is well aware that a constitutional amendment may face stiff opposition in the predominantly Catholic country and meet the same fate as the MoA-AD.

    Lastly, the framework encourages the normalization of militant groups through democratic elections, but it fails to specifically address those organizations that have openly refused peace talks. In particular, it does not include the MNLF’s other offshoots—the more extremist Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Movement (BIFM), which displaced 25,000 residents during a flurry of violent clashes with security forces last August, and the terrorist outfit Abu Sayyaf Group. The MILF has helped the government in the fight against the BIFM, and security forces have decimated Abu Sayyaf’s ranks in recent years. But even at a fraction of their former strength, both groups will remain a threat to security for the foreseeable future.

    Q5: What does the agreement mean for the United States and others?

    A5: If the framework agreement can be hammered into a lasting peace, the consequences will extend well beyond the Philippines. Manila is not the only Southeast Asian capital dealing with a decades-long insurgency, and the successful negotiations with the MILF offer a valuable lesson for the Philippines’ neighbors. In particular, a lasting peace will send a strong signal to Thailand, which faces its own perennial insurgency in its three southern, predominantly Muslim, provinces. Regional autonomy has been anathema to a wide swath of the Thai authorities, especially the military and those aligned with more conservative elements. A successful peace in the Philippines, however, could give more moderate voices a valuable boost.

    The framework agreement offers a similar lesson for Indonesia, which has a low-level insurgency in Papua, its eastern-most province. Jakarta has already experienced a successful deal featuring local autonomy in its 2005 peace agreement with Aceh, which ended decades of low-level insurgency. Manila’s success now holds up proof that the Aceh agreement was not a fluke and that local self-determination is the best path to peace in ethnically and religiously distinct subregions. Further, if the new Bangsamoro constitution manages to enshrine a system for equitable revenue sharing, the lesson for Indonesia will be doubly valuable given the centrality of disputes over resource wealth in fueling separatist tensions in Papua.

    The United States also stands to benefit from a peace dividend in Mindanao. As a valuable treaty ally, a stronger and more stable Philippines is invaluable for Washington’s efforts to ensure regional security and stability in the Asia Pacific. The Philippines spends an inordinate share of its military budget on ensuring internal security. Freeing up those personnel and funds that are currently locked down in Mindanao would finally allow the archipelago to spend its money where it is most needed—in building a competent twenty-first-century coast guard and navy. In the end, that will be the only way for the Philippines to attain what Secretary of State Albert Del Rosario has called a “minimum credible defense” capability in the South China Sea and throughout its maritime domain.

    Gregory Poling is a research assistant, and Liam Hanlon a researcher, with the Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

    Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

    © 2012 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.