MANILA - On October 7, Philippine President Benigno Aquino announced the successful conclusion of a framework peace agreement between the government and the country's main rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
The deal could potentially end a four-decade-long conflict that has claimed the lives of almost 200,000 people and contributed to general lawlessness and entrenched poverty across much of the southern island of Mindanao.
Leveraging his reformist government's rising political capital, Aquino hopes to achieve what at least five successive Philippine administrations dating back to the 1970s have failed to: peace and stability in Mindanao. To underscore his commitment, Aquino has vowed to accomplish a final agreement before the end of his term in 2016. If so, it could pave the way for reconciliation after centuries of tensions between the sprawling island nation's Catholic majority and Muslim minority.
A new sub-state unit, a so-called "Bangsamoro political region", will be created as part of the deal to supplant the current Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), which was created as part of a 1996 agreement between then president Fidel Ramos and the MILF's parent organization, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). The two rebel groups later split over differences in perspective on how to win greater autonomy from Manila.
Although the central government will as part of the new framework agreement retain control over administrative areas such as currency, defense, foreign affairs, and citizenship, the new political entity will exercise autonomy over crucial areas such as justice and taxation. The Bangsamoro political region will also have qualified powers to implement Sharia law and solicit grants, donations and contract loans from sources of its own choosing.
Moreover, the new entity will function as a ministerial form of government, whereby it will elect its own council representatives and leaders - although they will be under the ultimate authority of the Philippine president. In exchange, the MILF will gradually decommission its 11,000-strong militia while the Philippine army hands over authority for law enforcement to local police.
As part of the framework agreement, various working groups will be obliged in the years ahead to engage in a complex and difficult process of hammering out a final agreement. A 15-member committee will draft a new law to be approved by the legislature and through a local referendum by voters who fall within the areas of the proposed new political entity.
There are, however, still crucial legal debates. While some legislators such as Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago have argued there is a need to amend the constitution in order to accommodate the new political entity, Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile has ruled out such a move, saying instead there is only a need for a new law which will supplant the ARMM with the Bangsamoro political region.
In 2008, the Supreme Court blocked a proposed Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain for the region negotiated between then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and the MILF on the legal grounds the agreement was unconstitutional. The court intervention set off new rounds of violence and human displacement in the region.
Now, the greater worry lies in the potential reaction of more extremist splinter groups, namely the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) and Abu Sayyaf, neither of which have acknowledged Aquino's framework deal. These two groups can ultimately act as spoilers, sabotaging the emerging peace process in the absence of any dialogue with the government.
As a matter of principle, the Philippine state has refused to deal with these rebel groups, which it brands as "criminal" and "terrorist". Negotiations with powerful communist insurgents represented by the National People's Army (NPA) are still deadlocked. To ensure not only the economic viability of the new Bangsamoro political region, but also its self-governance capacity given the heavy entrenchment of a host of criminal gangs, militia groups, and local warlords in the area, some sort of accommodation will ultimately need to be made with these groups.
The framework deal with the MILF comes against the backdrop of growing optimism in the country's economy - currently among the best performers in the region - and political direction. Through a wide-reaching anti-corruption campaign, Aquino's administration has successfully impeached leading magistrates accused of corruption and administrative misconduct. It has also pushed for the passage of crucial bills in the legislature, especially the Freedom to Information Act, to enhance transparency and good governance.
MILF rebels have clearly taken notice of these positive developments under Aquino, which some analysts believe created the overall constructive atmosphere of recent negotiations. The conflict-weary leaders of the MILF have not only welcomed the deal but are also trying to convince other splinter groups such as the BIFF to respect the creation of the agreed new political entity.
In Manila, Aquino seems determined to build on the legacy of his mother - the late president Corazon Aquino - by reaching out to the rebels and paving the way for a final, enduring peace in Mindanao. Other Asian countries, namely Sri Lanka and Indonesia, have recently resolved their long-standing secessionist problems, while a liberalizing regime in Myanmar is believed to be trying to move in a similar direction.
The administration's early success lies in its astute diplomacy and political will. The deal comes after 32 rounds of intense negotiations with the constructive participation of an International Contact Group which brought together key representatives from Europe, Muslim countries, and the United States, as well as established conflict resolution institutions such as the Geneva-based Center for Humanitarian Dialogue.
As a sign of his personal determination, the president is known to have personally involved himself to help bridge differences with the rebel group. In 2010, upon assuming the presidency, Aquino - unlike his predecessor Arroyo - agreed to meet MILF leader Al Haj Murad. A face-to-face meeting was arranged the following year in Tokyo, a crucial step that revived botched efforts by the previous administration.
After some initial talks in 1997 between then president Fidel Ramos and the MILF, the succeeding administration of president Joseph Estrada declared outright war on the rebel group, a heavy-handed bid to achieve peace through force. Sensing the futility of her predecessor's policy, Arroyo called for a ceasefire and explored peace talks beginning in 2003. After five years of intense negotiations, Arroyo announced a provisional peace agreement with the MILF, one that the Supreme Court ultimately struck down in part because of her administration's inability to provide a transparent and inclusive process of negotiations.
Drawing lessons from his presidential predecessors' failures, Aquino has in contrast bid to make his ongoing negotiations as transparent and inclusive as possible. After a series of necessarily closed door talks, the details of the framework agreement are now open to the public, while comments and suggestions from all relevant and concerned stakeholders have been encouraged.
The international response to the framework deal has been positive at the highest levels. United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon described the framework deal as a "landmark achievement" and underscored his organization's readiness "to provide assistance to the parties as needed in implementing the framework peace agreement".
Foreign investors have long been excited about the peace prospects for large-scale mining ventures in the resource-rich island of Mindanao, which by certain estimates possesses over US$300 billion worth of unexploited mineral deposits. With its share of investment-to-GDP increasing in recent years, Mindanao could benefit from more infrastructure and development projects to help facilitate such international investments.
Neighboring countries such as Malaysia, meanwhile, have also warmly welcomed the deal. A successfully implemented agreement could mean a reduction in maritime criminal activity along Philippine-Malaysian borders and stem the flow of illegal immigrants from conflict-ravaged Mindanao to the Malaysian island of Borneo. Kuala Lumpur has served as a key broker in the negotiations, actively mediating between the two sides since 2001.
Malaysian Prime Minster Najib Razak hailed the agreement as a step towards " ... ensure[ing] that the Bangsamoro people will enjoy the dividends of peace, which they rightly deserve. His defense minister, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, said "With peace, there will be a reduction in the influx of immigrants into Sabah. Not only is it expensive for us to tackle illegal immigrants into Sabah, it could create economic and political problems in the state."
At the height of the US-led global "war on terror", Mindanao was identified by some analysts as a second front in the campaign because it served as a magnet for leading terrorists who had escaped crackdowns in other parts of Southeast Asia. The framework peace agreement could thus also aid on-going anti-terrorism operations in the region, mostly targeting Abu Sayaff, and contribute to greater national and regional security.
Long strategic view
Security experts are assessing the potential strategic dividends of a more stable Mindanao. The US, Australia and other allies are known to be analyzing the prospects for ending the consistent infiltration of high-profile terrorist elements, including from al-Qaeda affiliate groups such as the Indonesia-based Jemaah-Islamiyah, which have long exploited the island's porous borders and general state of lawlessness.
Peaceful relations with the MILF will allow the Philippines' armed forces to focus more squarely on mopping up Abu Sayyaf while re-orienting their defense posture towards more external threats, especially in light of growing tensions with China over disputed islands in the South China Sea.
Some here hope that a successful peace agreement with the MILF will provide momentum for renewed peace talks with the 10,000-strong armed communist NPA insurgents. The NPA conflict dates back to the 1960s and has claimed an estimated 40,000 casualties.
Earlier peace talks in 2004 and 2011 - brokered by the Norwegian government - collapsed after communist leaders demanded the release of their detained comrades as a precondition for peace and accused the Philippine government of contributing to the NPA's inclusion on the US's list of foreign terrorist organizations. Now, an inspired Aquino administration is trying to revive those stalled negotiations.
Despite the optimism surrounding the announcement of the framework deal, there are still concerns over the MILF's ability to hold the tentative peace agreement together and effectively govern a new political entity. The 1996 deal with the MNLF felt apart because leaders of that autonomous region failed to reverse massive poverty, corruption, and lawlessness, while splinter groups such as MILF, Abu Sayyaf and BIFF aimed to sabotage the deal.
The Aquino administration will thus need to devise a detailed and effective plan to strengthen the foundation of the nascent autonomous region in one of the poorest and most violent regions in Southeast Asia. Otherwise, he risks repeating a history of well-intended but ultimately unviable peace efforts in Mindanao.
Richard Javad Heydarian
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