The outcome of the second phase of a plebiscite to join the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao was patchy.
Unlike the first round of voting that saw an overwhelming response in favor of including five of six southern Philippine provinces and cities in the autonomous region – otherwise known as BARMM – the second round, held on Feb. 6, yielded more mixed results.
Last week’s vote took place in contiguous areas that were not part of the original Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao. Residents of barangays in North Cotabato province voted heavily for inclusion, but none of the six towns in Lanao del Norte province agreed to join the region.
This has important implications for the success of the BARMM government as well as peace and security in the Philippine south.
Lanao del Norte has always been contested space. It marks the boundary between a predominantly Catholic area, anchored by Illigan and Cagayan de Oro cities, and predominantly Muslim Lanao del Sur province.
The Muslim leaders in Lanao del Norte – particularly the Dimaporo clan – have tended to be far more accommodating to the national government and consider the Moro Islamic Liberation Front to be bitter rivals.
The MILF has three camps within Lanao del Norte, which are all under the overall command of Abdullah Macapagar, better known as “Commander Bravo.”
He has always been one of MILF’s more militant field commanders and one who is most skeptical of the peace process.
When the cabinet of former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo rejected a draft peace agreement in late 2007, followed by a supreme court ruling that found the draft to be unconstitutional, it was Macapagar's men who resumed armed hostilities. They attacked Christian villages, raising the specter of a more sectarian turn in the conflict.
The MILF leadership was able to bring him back into the fold. Macapagar did not join another hardline MILF commander, Ameril Umbra Kato, who quit the group and founded the rival Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF).
In 2014, Macapagar gave sanctuary to a small group of pro-Islamic State militants, Dawlah Islamiya, led be two Saudi-trained clerics, the Maute Brothers. The Mautes began a campaign of terror. In mid-2014, they executed two Christian loggers, mimicking the imagery and style of Islamic State (IS) executions.
With the collapse of the peace process following the January 2015 Mamasapano incident, in which 44 Philippine police commandos were killed in an encounter with the MILF, Macapagar again questioned the government’s commitment to the peace process and tried to signal the costs of stalling.
In a rare May 2016 interview with a French TV news crew, Macapagar was blunt, warning that his region was amok with pro-IS groups, and that only he had the power to quash the movement. His threat was clear: if the government did not support the peace process, pro-Islamic State groups would proliferate.
The government did not take the threats seriously.
In May 2017, the Mautes and a group of Abu Sayyaf militants took over southern Marawi city. It took government forces five months, with considerable foreign assistance, to retake the city.
Macapagar’s men worked with the government forces during the siege to establish a humanitarian corridor for trapped residents. Macapagar himself made an audio appeal for the militants to lay down their arms.
Ahead of the Feb. 6 plebiscite, Macapagar was a surprising advocate for peace.
In a Jan. 31 video he posted on Facebook, he appealed to the residents of the six towns in Lanao del Norte to vote for inclusion.
But his words had an air of menace.
“We don’t want trouble. Voting ‘yes’ means that you want peace and you give us an opportunity to live in peace. And we will take this as a debt of honor. Voting ‘no’ will be a violation of our right to live in peace. [A ‘no’ vote] will only cause violence in Lanao del Norte,” Macapagar said.
With a majority in all six towns voting against inclusion in BARMM, we have reached a potentially dangerous situation.
The MILF leadership in general and Macapagar in particular are very upset that the BARMM territory will not include these towns, which MILF sees as part of its “ancestral domain.”
More to the point, it seems highly unlikely that the MILF will relinquish their three camps in Lanao del Norte, or decommission its men or arms. That could put the group on a collision course with the Dimaporos, if the latter try to unilaterally enforce the disarmament of the MILF or lobby the national government to do so.
The MILF leadership is aware of the problem, and is working to appease Macapagar.
The next step is for the 80-person Bangsamoro Transition Authority to be named. The MILF will appoint 41 people and the government will appoint 39 (25 of whom will come from the existing ARMM government).
The BTA will act as the interim government, based on a parliamentary system. It will be headed by the MILF chairman, Ebrahim el Haj Murad, and will be in power for three years until elections are organized within the BARMM.
Although appointing Macapagar to the BTA may be necessary, it may be insufficient to get him to demobilize his troops. MILF has committed itself to demobilize 30 percent of its forces with this phase of the peace process.
An ace up his sleeve?
Were Macapagar to begin demobilization, it is likely that he would have an insurance policy: offering a degree of sanctuary to other militants.
Though government forces claim to having defeated the Mautes in October 2017, militants have been able to regroup. The Philippine armed forces is still conducting follow-up operations against the group, now under the command of Abu Dar.
Likewise, the Abu Sayyaf’s bombing of the cathedral in Jolo, which led to the deaths of 23 people and the wounding of more than 100 others, shows just how fragile the peace process is and how many spoilers abound. While individually none of these groups is a major threat, when they operate in concert, and with the support of even a small number of foreign fighters, the threat posed by them escalates quickly.
While it is troubling that one person can have so much sway over a peace process, Commander Bravo does. Therefore it is incumbent on all those involved to continue to secure his commitment.
The BTA has a host of immediate challenges: governance, the rehabilitation of Marawi, managing high popular expectations about economic growth and revenue sharing from natural resource exploitation. But most of all, the BTA will be under inordinate pressure to deal with the lingering insecurity, and put down the alphabet soup of pro-IS groups.
Zachary Abuza is a professor at the National War College in Washington and the author of “Forging Peace in Southeast Asia: Insurgencies, Peace Processes, and Reconciliation.” The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the U.S. Department of Defense, the National War College or BenarNews.