Peace in Mindanao
The peace agreement between the government of the Philippines and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front signed on Sunday has, it seems, brought to an end four decades of a bloody and destructive war in the southern Philippines that has cost an estimated 150,000 lives. Assuming the peace agreement holds, it will create an autonomous Islamic homeland for the Philippines’ ‘Bangsamoro’ people and bring much needed stability to an historically deeply troubled region. The peace agreement recognises the long-standing military stalemate between the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the MILF. A compromise arrangement has long been recognised by the MILF and at least some in the government as the only practical means to ending the conflict. To make itself more acceptable to the Philippines government and to the international community, the MILF had cut its ties with the regional terrorist organisation Jema’ah Islamiyah, which had trained in MILF camps, and ended its links to Al Qaeda operatives. While the peace agreement is a critical step and has been welcomed by senior MILF officials as ‘exciting’, it remains far from complete. To start, the formally named ‘Framework Agreement’ leaves much of its detail to be clarified. Notably, the critical division of income from natural resources and the repositioning of security forces are to be determined by both parties at a later date. The peace agreement also does not include the smaller, more radical Abu Sayyef Group, (ASG) based in the Sulu Archipelago. The ASG has been notorious for its campaign of kidnappings, beheadings and attacks on civilian targets. The ASG will now find itself increasingly under pressure, not least from the MILF, to also find a mechanism for accommodation with the Philippines government. Importantly, however, the peace agreement allows for the creation of a democratic autonomous region, including the western provinces of Mindano island, the island of Palawan and the Sulu Archipelago. This means that while the MILF has signed the peace agreement it, or its political wing, will have to compete with other political parties in open elections. Such elections are likely to see the development of parties based on MILF factions, including those with a stronger adherence to strict Islamic law and those of a more tolerant and liberal orientation. Parties based on non-MILF groupings are also likely, which may lead to a coalition government in the newly autonomous region. Sunday’s agreement replaces and extends a 1996 agreement with the separate Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), which established an Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao. That agreement effectively collapsed in 2001 following the failure of the government of the Philippines to allocate agreed resources. While the provincial governments established under the ARRM continued, they were riven by lack of funds, corruption and violence. The then militarily ascendant MILF did not, however, recognise the 1996 peace agreement and has held out for a more comprehensive and enforceable deal. While Sunday’s peace agreement is a major achievement, it follows the collapse of its own ceasefire with the Philippines government in 2007, when the first part of a similar peace agreement with the MILF was overturned by a challenge in the Philippines’ supreme court. With a number of spoilers in the Philippines’ fractious political system, and with business and military interests vested in denying the MILF political control in Mindanao, Sunday’s peace agreement may also face legal and perhaps other challenges. Importantly, while the peace agreement is based on a number of sound principles, including ‘just and equitable’ revenue sharing from natural resources, including assumed off-shore oil deposits, much of the detail of the agreement is yet to be determined. There does, however, now appear to be a genuine commitment to finding solutions to these still potentially contentious issues. The Framework Agreement is the most important achievement to date of President Noy Noy Aquino’s campaign to reform the Philippines and upon which he has expended considerable political capital. Aquino’s success, and that of the peace agreement, will now depend on being able to bed down the detail from the government side and to sideline potential spoilers. As with the ‘self government’ agreement signed in Aceh in 2005, the Mindanao peace agreement continues to allocate to the central government responsibility for defence, foreign relations, monetary policy and communications. Also as with Aceh, much of the rest of government responsibility will devolve to the newly established local political authority. Peace agreements which devolve a high level of administrative responsibility to autonomous regions, along with a proportionate allocation of resources with which to make them work, are increasingly seen as a, if not the, panacea to many of the disputes that have plagued previously centralised, multi-ethnic post-colonial countries. While there are still a number of hurdles for the Mindanao peace agreement to overcome, it now appears that, between the framework and the goodwill that has led to it, one of Southeast Asia’s most intractable conflicts may be at an end.