Autonomy Law’s Signing is Milestone in Southern Philippine Peace Process

Commentary by Zachary Abuza
180726-PH-MILF-civilians-1000.jpg A MILF guerrilla stands guard as civilians walk along a trail in Tangkal, in the southern Philippine province of Lanao del Norte, May 28, 2018.
Richel V. Umel/BenarNews

On July 26, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte signed the Bangsamoro Organic Law, the legislative component for implementing a peace agreement signed in 2014 with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

This is a major milestone in the peace process with the restive Moro population in the south. The 70-page law granting autonomy to the Muslim-majority region clearly lays out the scope of governance, revenue sharing, natural resources, fiscal affairs, the court system, transitional justice, and law and order, among other things.

It is a model of what a peace process should entail. It has the potential to end one of the longest-running conflicts. It could also have an important impact on regional security.

Not a Foregone Conclusion

It was not always clear that we would get here.

When the Philippine Congress was deliberating the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) bill in 2014, it was expected to be passed quickly by 2015. But in January 2015, an elite unit of the Philippine National Police staged a raid to capture foreign militants in MILF-held territory. The botched operation in Mamasapano left 44 police commandos dead, and the congressional deliberations ceased.

Ahead of national elections, hearings quickly turned to culpability. While the MILF termed the Mamasapano incident a “tragic mis-encounter,” Philippine congressional findings blamed the “massacre” squarely on the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, even though the police acknowledged that they had intentionally not followed protocols in coordinating a ceasefire with MILF.

Few politicians saw votes in going to the mat to salvage the BBL.

President Duterte, who himself is from Mindanao and is sympathetic to the plight of the Moro, made his own missteps by downplaying the need for the BBL and instead pushing for a constitutional amendment to create a federal system.

Even when he acquiesced to MILF’s demands, there were legitimate questions about whether he had the political capital to push both pieces of legislation through Congress. Duterte threw another wrench into the works when he began a separate peace process with former MNLF chairman Nur Misuari.  

Where do we go from here?

Now that the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL) is a reality, what happens next?

First, we need to expect that opponents will challenge its constitutionality in the Supreme Court. Foes of the peace process have done this several times since 2008.

There are several grounds over which the law could be challenged. For one, the concept of “self governance.” Second, the new government will be a parliamentary-style system, which could possibly violate the constitution’s provisions on “separation of powers.”

Should the Supreme Court uphold BOL, then the next step is to hold a plebiscite.

The Bangsamoro will include existing provinces that lie within the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). But six towns in Lanao Del Norte, as well as 29 barangays in North Cotabato, as well as the cities of Cotabato and Isabela, will also vote on whether to join the new autonomous government.

Some are almost certain to join, but several of the towns in Lanao del Norte are Christian majority. The failure of significant numbers of eligible legislative government units (LGUs) to vote for inclusion has been an irritant in the past, and could be so again.

The plebiscite must be held between 90 to 150 days upon the law’s signing.

The plebiscite and interim governance is now in the hands of the Bangsamoro Transitional Authority (BTA). It is headed by the MILF, but “without prejudice to the participation of the Moro National Liberation Front.” The 80 members of the authority will have executive and legislative powers until the new government is elected – no later than June 2019.

The third step will be the organizing of elections for a new government. This is an important point.

The BOL superseded and nullified the 1996 accord with the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). That was a huge blow to their ego. MNLF had long opposed the MILF peace process, simply wanting the government to fully implement their own.

Through a creative solution, MNLF was persuaded that they would have substantial representation in a new government not simply dominated by MILF.

The MILF is largely comprised of Maguindanaons and Maranao. It has almost no presence in Sulu or Tawi-Tawi, where the MNLF, today dominated by ethnic Tausugs, holds sway.

For now, we still do not have full buy in from the MNLF. Some of their leaders are on board. But as mentioned above, former chairman Nur Misuari opposes the agreement and is trying to negotiate his own peace agreement with Duterte. This is irreconcilable.

The MILF has already legally registered a political party: the United Bangsamoro Justice Party (UBJP). As it begins to demobilize its armed cadres, it will put more resources into political mobilization and organizing.

There are other provisions to ensure broad representation. The parliamentary government will have 80 seats. Fifty percent of the seats will be for party representatives, while 40 percent will be district representatives. The remaining 10 percent will be representatives from certain sectors, including two reserved seats for indigenous peoples.

The parliament will then elect a chief minister, as well as a ceremonial leader. The election of the chief minister will be contentious. Though MILF chief Ebrahim el-Haj Murad has said that he is not interested in the position, few see other viable candidates. But the election of an MILF leader is likely to antagonize MNLF members who view the Bangsamoro as a weakening of their power.

The new government will then establish a three-tiered sharia court system. The BOL lays out the qualifications for justices for each court.

The MILF has been trying to train personnel to assume executive government functions for years, aware that the MNLF’s dearth of capable personnel impaired the implementation of the 1996 agreement.

Staffing the new government will be no easy task.  While the MILF has cited the MNLF’s graft and patronage system, they will have their own challenges.

The national and autonomous governments will then have to staff a host of intergovernmental bodies for oversight and coordination.

Law, order, and regional security

The passage of BOL also raises important questions regarding the security situation in Mindanao, plagued by terrorism and lawlessness.  

While the MILF will begin to demobilize their armed wing, the Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces, not all weapons will be turned in.

While the MILF began to disarm in early 2015, as a show of good will, not all arms will be surrendered. This obviously was a major point of contention with the Philippine congress, which is concerned about lawlessness, defections of MILF members, or just illegal arms markets.

The MILF had long pushed for internal policing authorities, which was part of the 2014 peace agreement. That did not happen.  All security remains in the hands of the PNP and AFP.

The PNP will appoint a regional director “in consultation with the chief minister.” The PNP will be expected to recruit from MILF and MNLF ranks to staff itself, and the BOL has clear guidelines for eligibility.

This should give the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and Philippine National Police (PNP) a bit more local knowledge and credibility, but it remains problematic. The presence of the Philippine military and national police will continue to be an irritant to some Moro, who see them as occupiers.

More importantly, the AFP and PNP are still involved in operations against the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), Ansar al-Khalifa Philippines (AKP), and what remains of the Maute group, which took part in the siege of Marawi for five months in 2017.

The onus will be on the new Bangsamoro government to crack down on pro-Islamic State militants and deny them sanctuary. The MILF long made the argument to Philippine leaders and congress that the antidote to IS militancy was a workable autonomy agreement.

Indeed, they cite the fact that the Mautes, BIFF, and AKP were able to grow and recruit from MILF ranks following the Mamasapano incident in early 2015. There is a lot of latent mistrust towards the MILF, so they really have to prove that they are the responsible stakeholder. The MILF has another incentive to crack down on these groups: they are a challenge to its authority.  

The MILF has limited influence over these groups, in that there are personal and kinship relationships. They know the pro-IS groups, and often co-exist with them, with the exception of the ASG, simply because the latter is predominantly comprised of ethnic Tausugs, and the MILF has always had a very limited presence in Sulu.

The MILF would do well to first crackdown on foreign militants. As the central leadership of IS has been encouraging Southeast Asian supporters to travel to Mindanao to fight as part of its global insurgency, the MILF and the Bangsamoro Transitional Authority will have to work to make the region much less hospitable to them.

If the MILF really prove to the government that they are serious about making Mindanao a less hospitable place for the pro-IS militants, they could really weaken IS in the region. This is vital, because while you have IS cells in Indonesia and Malaysia, they are simply cells operating in inhospitable environments, up against competent and well-resourced security forces.

Only in the Philippines did pro-IS groups control territory, and have the space they needed to attract IS’s attention, and encourage foreign fighters to come.

The real question is whether the MILF can stem the defections from its ranks that we saw in the past three years. Will there be a peace dividend to convince rank-and-file fighters to lay down their arms, and give peace a chance.

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.


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