Written by Pauleen Gorospe.
It has been decades since the armed conflict in Mindanao erupted. Almost 50 years later, the Government of the Philippines (GOP) was able to enter into peace agreements with two secessionist groups: in 1996, with the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and, in 2014, with its breakaway group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). However, recent developments could be undone by a change in leadership, which makes the May 2016 general elections a critical juncture in the peace process.
The peace process so far
The 1996 final peace agreement between the GOP and the MNLF enabled the expansion of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), an autonomous political entity created in 1989 in accordance with a constitutional amendment. Former combatant and MNLF founder Nur Misuari was elected as the ARMM’s third governor. Amidst all this, the armed conflict continued, as breakaway groups, such as the MILF, did not recognize Misuari’s leadership and found anything short of independence unacceptable. In addition, for many years after its establishment, the ARMM remained one of the poorest regions in the country, fueling allegations of corruption against MNLF leadership. The armed conflict also disrupted long-term development, and the lack of progress served as one of the impetuses for the MILF’s campaign.
On 27 March 2014, following years of consultations, the GOP and the MILF signed the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB), which aimed to establish a new political entity, the Bangsamoro, that would replace the ARMM. A transition committee was tasked to draft the implementing law of the agreement, later called the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL). With the mediation of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the GOP and the largest faction of the MNLF concluded their review of the peace process, with the objective of merging the two peace processes into one track. On October 2015, this same faction of the MNLF and the MILF jointly declared their support for the BBL. Although some lawmakers challenged the constitutionality of the CAB, proponents expected that the BBL would be passed in the first quarter of 2015, well before lawmakers would begin to focus on the May 2016 general elections.
The political tone, however, changed drastically when 44 Special Action Force (SAF) troops of the Philippine National Police (PNP) died in a clash with the MILF and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), its breakaway group, on 25 January 2015 in Mamasapano, Maguindanao. SAF troops had entered MILF-controlled territory in order to arrest the fugitive Zulkifli Abdhir, accused of providing explosives to terrorist organizations and also one of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) most wanted. The clash also resulted in the deaths of 18 MILF combatants and 5 civilians. A Senate investigation concluded that the PNP, in launching the operation, violated protocol by failing to inform and coordinate with relevant agencies, including the military and the PNP’s own administrative head, the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG). The investigation also recommended filing criminal charges against MILF and BIFF combatants who killed SAF troops.
The Mamasapano incident dampened the chances of the BBL being passed. The rhetoric shifted from issues on constitutionality to the merits of entering into a peace agreement with the MILF, whose members killed government troops. Since then, the BBL draft released by the President’s office has been amended to the dissatisfaction of the MILF and other Bangsamoro groups, who consider the amendment a weaker version. At the time of writing, Congress had just adjourned its session without advancing the bill. The new session opens in May and by then, the BBL would have to be refiled.
In Philippine politics, every presidential election ushers in new beginnings. Eager to build his or her own legacy, each president typically distances himself or herself from the policies of the previous administration, especially on highly controversial issues. Campaigns may be built around the perceived failures of the outgoing president. This current cycle is no different. And since the president’s endorsement can do much to facilitate legislation, supporters of the GOP-MILF peace agreement are anxious about the leadership change.
There are five front runners in the presidential race: the current vice-president, Jejomar Binay; two senators, Grace Poe and Miriam Defensor-Santiago; former senator and secretary of the DILG, Mar Roxas; and mayor of Davao City, Rodrigo Duterte. Among them, only Roxas, endorsed by President Aquino’s party, has publicly declared that he will continue the current administration’s action plan on the peace process. Poe has indicated that she will continue peace efforts by expanding the dialogue to other stakeholders in Mindanao because she has reservations on the original draft of the BBL. Binay supports the “weaker” draft. Defensor-Santiago has challenged the constitutionality of the original draft, though whether she favors the new version is unclear. Duterte, the only candidate from Mindanao, recognizes the weakness of the latest draft and proposes instead to transform the Philippines to a federal form of government to be able to implement the CAB. However, doing so would require a constitutional amendment, something politicians and the public are historically not open to.
One caveat is that campaign platforms are not a reliable indicator of a candidate’s commitment to a particular policy. Political elites are rarely known to have any ideological or policy loyalties and may shift parties according to political need or public sentiment. Roxas and Binay were against a similar agreement with the MILF in 2008. Duterte’s running mate for vice president, Senator Alan Cayetano, was among the most outspoken critics of the MILF and the BBL during the Senate hearings. With the Mamasapano incident weighing heavily in the minds of the public, it appears that choosing the current track is the unpopular choice. Nonetheless, capturing votes in Mindanao is important for candidates, as are the interests of the private sector in the region and many development prospects, and one who would ensure that the peace process continues would likely get significant support. In addition, the international community is also anxious to have the 2014 peace agreement implemented, as expressed by the Third-Party Monitoring Team (TPMT), comprised of representatives of countries independently monitoring the peace talks, and other foreign dignitaries.
No matter who becomes the next president, at the very least, the 2014 peace agreement remains binding, which means the next administration must find a way to implement it. But the final version of the BBL should be acceptable to the people of Mindanao, who remain hopeful that delays will not lead to a return to hostilities.
Pauleen Gorospe is a PhD student in the Global Governance Program of the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo. This article forms part of IAPS continuing coverage of the 2016 general election in the Philippines. Image credit: Wikipedia Commons.