Mindanao autonomy: end to a conflict that has hit the southern Philippines for 50 years?

Creation of Bangsamoro Autonomous Region approved in plebiscite, following agreement between Moro people armed group, Philippine government · Self-government consolidation and peace are current and future challenges

The Muslim-majority region of Mindanao, or Bangsamoro, has approved in a plebiscite the creation of a new system of autonomy that will grant it a relatively large margin of self-government vis-à-vis the government of the Philippines. This will be the second attempt to institute an autonomy for the Bangsamoro as a way of resolving an armed conflict that, in half a century, has left a toll of at least 120,000 dead. Challenges are many: consolidation of peace, good management of the future autonomous government, how will it fit into plans by controversial president Rodrigo Duterte, and management of the presence of Islamic State in the area. Nationalia spoke to Jordi Urgell, deputy director of the School for the Culture of Peace (Autonomous University of Barcelona, UAB). Urgell is a researcher in conflicts and peacebuilding, and specialises in the region of Southeast Asia.

What is Bangsamoro?

Bangsamoro is the name given to a Muslim-majority territory in the southern Philippines, a country where more than 90% of the population is Christian. Bangsamoro consists of a part of Mindanao —the second largest island in the Philippines— and the Sulu archipelago. The Bangsamoro provinces “are among the most impoverished in the country,” explains Urgell. Mindanao Muslims are collectively known as “Moro people,” a term that brings together at least 13 different ethnolinguistic groups. “A certain variety of points of view among the groups exists,” Urgell says, “and this is seen in the makeup of different armed groups that operate or have operated in the area.”

Why are there armed groups in Bangsamoro?

The Moro people has a long tradition of resistance to outside powers. Islamic sultanates of Mindanao opposed Spanish rule during the 18th and 19th centuries, and later the Moro confronted United States’ United States during the first third of the 20th century. After independence, the Philippine government deepened the colonization of Mindanao lands by Christian Filipinos born outside the island, a process that had already been initiated by the Americans. As a result, the Moro became a minority in Mindanao (20%) and were dispossessed of many lands; at the same time, the Philippine government excluded them from political power, and marginalized their languages and cultures.

In 1968, an armed revolt by some sections of the Moro people seeking independence from the Filipino state broke out. Two main Moro pro-independence armed groups —currently espousing an autonomist agenda— exist: the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF, founded in 1969) and its 1978 split, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). Later on, other groups with a very marked Islamist character appeared, which complicated the war scenario. The best known of them is Abu Sayyaf (1991), now linked to Islamic State.

What was the Philippine state’s response to the revolt?

At first, the government applied martial law and sent the army to Mindanao, while almost at the same time, contacts with the rebels started. “The first negotiations on the political status of Mindanao date back to 1972, between Nur Misuari and Ferdinand Marcos,” respectively the MNLF leader and the president of the Philippines, “mediated by Gaddafi,” explains Urgell.

After many turns and failures, the Philippine government and the MNLF negotiated peace for two decades and a half. In 1996 they reached a final deal, the Jakarta Agreement. Nur Misuari became president of the newly recognised autonomy of the Moro people, the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).

What happened to this autonomy?

On the one hand, the MNLF split in 2000 between supporters and detractors of Misuari. The following year, Misuari lost the post of ARMM president, and took up arms again.

On the other hand, the MILF, which was not part of the Jakarta Agreement and maintained its armed struggle against the Philippine army, began to negotiate with Manila as it disputed control of the territory, just as the MNLF had done before.

More generally speaking, “everyone has come to the conclusion that the ARMM has been a failed experiment,” sums up Urgell, “because of bad governance, corruption, financial dependence on Manila...”.

What is the difference between the ARMM and the new autonomy that has just been voted on?

The new Bangsamoro Autonomous Region —which will replace the ARMM to all intents and purposes— will have more powers, including justice administration, language, culture, education, health, social services, urban planning, labour laws, women and Indigenous issues... Such powers, however, may be “supervised” by the Philippine president. It will also have more financial autonomy. It will be able to collect its own taxes, and will include an enlarged territory, as Cotabato City, which was not part of the ARMM, voted on January 21 to join the new autonomy. On February 6, other municipalities will be voting with the same aim. The implementation of its own judicial system, based on both the Constitution and Sharia, is also foreseen. Sharia will not be applied in judicial cases if one of the parties is not Muslim. “This paints a system with a degree of autonomy far larger than that of the country’s provinces,” explains Urgell. It is excluded, in any case, that Bangsamoro can eventually declare independence.

The other big difference is that the autonomy now being implemented is the result of an agreement between the Philippine government and the MILF, which has ended up replacing the MNLF as the main reference for the Moro rebellion. Manila and the MILF signed the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro in 2014, with facilitation from Malaysia, after which the Philippine Parliament approved the Bangsamoro Organic Law (2018) which establishes autonomy.

How will autonomy be implemented?

“A three-year transition is now underway,” explains Urgell. A provisional government, or Bangsamoro Transition Authority, has been set in place. It is dominated by the MILF, which will have 51% of the seats, while the remaining 49% will be appointed by the Philippine president, Rodrigo Duterte. The armed group “will have to show how it administers the government. In parallel, the group has organized its own political party,” the United Bangsamoro Justice Party (UBJP), “which everyone expects to remain in power after elections to the government of the Bangsamoro are held.” That election should be held in 2022.

The process is expected to progress in parallel with Duterte’s plans to decentralize the Philippines into a federal state, an idea with which not everyone agrees in the Asian country. “It remains to be seen to what extent [Duterte] will instrumentalize the autonomous region in favour of its agenda,” says Urgell, who believes that this synergy may end up benefiting the consolidation of Bangsamoro: “For Manila, not hindering the establishment of the autonomous region may be an incentive to prove that decentralization works well.”

At the same time, the process of disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) of MILF combatants will have to be implemented. “According to the peace agreement, 30% must now be demobilised, a further 35% when the transitional authority is appointed, and the remaining 35% in the 2022 election. It means the demobilisation of an important guerrilla, with thousands of members —the figure of 12,000 is being circulated, although the group says it has 40,000— and thus this is a very important point: if it does not work, some MILF fighters may be tempted to join other armed groups. But if a good DDR process exists, then the opposite can happen,” contributing to the stabilisation of the territory.

Which has been the participation of women in the process?

Outstanding. The person who signed the Comprehensive Agreement on behalf of the Philippine government is Professor Miriam Coronel-Ferrer, “who thus became the first woman in the world to sign a peace agreement with a rebel group, a very powerful image,” says Urgell. The MILF also had an advisor in the process, lawyer Raissa Jajurie.

In addition, “Mindanao women’s and feminist organizations have been very active in developing proposals for lawmakers for the drafting of the Bangsamoro Organic Law, and in socializing the benefits of the peace accords. They have also played an important role in supporting the process when it became stalled.”

This November 2018 SIPRI study also positively assesses women’s participation in the process, but notes that the gender focus has been limited, especially when compared to the other case cited in the report, that of Colombia, as the Asian deal has remained more at a level of non-discrimination and basic rights.

The Organic Law aims to “protect the fundamental rights of women”, article 9 section 12 reads, including protection against discrimination as defined in CEDAW, as well as a minimum of one seat reserved for women in Parliament and the future Bangsamoro government.

What challenges can be expected in the future?

According to Urgell, three major challenges can be mentioned.

One, preventing that constitutional appeals that have been filed to the Supreme Court —and others that may come— against the Bangsamoro Organic Law could halt the establishment of autonomy.

Two, making that non-Muslim populations of Bangsamoro —non-Islamic Indigenous peoples and people hailing from elsewhere in the Philippines— feel comfortable and represented in the new autonomy. “Some, for example, voice fears that Sharia will eventually be applied to non-Muslims as well,” Urgell says.

And three, preventing armed groups opposed to the Organic Law from derailing the process. This is probably the challenge with the most potential dangers.

As said before, Islamic State has some presence in Bangsamoro, either through pre-existing armed groups such as Abu Sayyaf, or new ones. “Islamic state has decided to open a second front” in its war, explains Urgell, “to divert attention from its territorial retreat in Iraq and Syria. It is betting very strongly to bring together under its banner several groups that were already deeply rooted in the area,” in a relationship that, for the time being, is a win-win for all of them: “Islamic State gains combatants and territory, and local groups gain a lot of prominence in combat, economy and media exposure.”

“Thanks to the Marawi crisis”, in which several Islamic State-affiliated groups fought the Philippine army for five months in 2017 for control of that city, “they made a lot of money by pillaging. And now this money can be used to recruit combatants, taking advantage of a feeling of frustration among some layers of the Moro people, who see that their historical grievances, such as land dispossession, have not been fully solved. Some people feel that the peace process is moving too slowly, and that in the end, the Philippine state will end up deceiving the MILF in one way or another. These armed groups clash with the army every month, and no one rules out that they may have the ability to retake control of an important city,” Urgell warns.

On the other hand, “it must not be forgotten the militarization of Duterte’s cabinet and the possible militarization of the whole country, in a context of a martial law decreed by Duterte in 2017 in Mindanao that will remain in force at least until December 2019.”