Little is known about how Marcos Jr. will approach Bangsamoro peace process

Commentary by Zachary Abuza
Little is known about how Marcos Jr. will approach Bangsamoro peace process President-elect Ferdinand Marcos Jr. arrives at his headquarters in Mandaluyong City, Metro Manila, May 23, 2022.

Because he refused to participate in presidential debates, dodged reporters and rarely gave interviews on the campaign trail, there’s a lot we don’t know about the policies that President-elect Ferdinand Marcos Jr. will pursue once he moves into the Malacañang Palace.

Nowhere is this more true than with the Bangsamoro peace process in the southern Philippines that impacts both national and regional security.

The peace process is a complicated and held together by a patchwork of peace deals and sub-agreements between Manila and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) rebels. A comprehensive peace deal struck by both sides in 2014 was well on its way to receiving congressional support –  even winning over a somewhat skeptical Sen. Ferdinand Marcos Jr. – when a police operation in the south went awry in January 2016.

Police failed to coordinate their raid with the MILF, in violation of their ceasefire agreement, and entered rebel-controlled territory, leading to a clash that left 44 commandos dead. A national outcry ensued, and during the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, when Marcos was Rodrigo Dutertes vice presidential running mate, there was intense politicking over the botched counter-terrorist operation.

Both the Senate and the House held hearings on the incident at Mamasapano while the Bangsamoro peace process was put on hold indefinitely. The Moro Islamic Liberation Front, to its credit, remained committed to the peace process and surrendered heavy and crew-serviced weapons.

For the first few years of Dutertes administration, there was little hope for the peace process. The outgoing president, who hails from Mindanao, has been empathetic to the Moro, but his primary legislative goal was to establish a federal system of government. He was unwilling to use political capital to implement the Bangsamoro peace agreement, which he thought was redundant.

To make matters worse, Duterte’s inner circle was filled with Christian leaders from Mindanao who had previously undermined peace talks.

Nonetheless, the MILF continued to implement its end of the peace agreement.

In 2019, when it was clear that Duterte was not going to be able to push through a constitutional amendment to establish federalism despite his congressional majorities, he pushed through the implementing legislation, the Bangsamoro Organic Law.

In early 2020, the autonomous government was established, led by an appointed Bangsamoro Transition Authority (BTA).

The transitional body faced an enormous challenge because it had to pass a swath of laws to govern everything from personnel to tax collection to civil administration, while establishing a parliamentary system of government. All of this was done with leaders who had no legislative experience and during the COVD-19 pandemic.

In 2021, the MILF successfully lobbied Duterte to push through legislation that extended the BTA’s tenure for another three years. Simply, the leaders could not pass all the laws required for an elected government to take over in May 2022.

The rival Moro National Liberation Front and other critics of the peace process saw the extension as a power grab.

The BTA had other challenges, especially security. The 2019 implementing legislation stripped the MILF of internal policing powers, yet the onus was on its leaders to rein in the pro-Islamic State groups such as the BIFF, the Abu Sayyaf and the Maute Group that remain resilient and committed to spoiling the peace process.

Murad Ebrahim, chairman of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, inspects a B40 rocket launcher during a ceremonial turnover of weapons and decommissioning of MILF combatants in Maguindanao province, Philippines, June 16, 2015. [Reuters]

All politics is local

More recently, the MILF made a controversial decision to get involved in the 2022 national election, publicly endorsing Leni Robredo for president. This was done for four key reasons.

First, she was deemed a much more competent administrator who was committed to the rule of law. During her campaign, she made clear that she supported the peace process.

Second, while on the campaign trail Marcos was coy about his commitment to implementing the peace agreement. The MILF remembered in 2016 just how quickly he became a vociferous opponent of the agreement, even if it was just for political grandstanding.

But there are legitimate concerns about his commitment to the rule of law and good governance in general.

Third, there is concern about Marcos security policies toward pro-Islamic State militant groups in the south. Should he decide to escalate the violence or appoint hardliners to key positions in the military, it will cause considerable suffering amongst the Moro population.

Finally, there is a concern that the apple does not fall far from the tree. Marcos’ campaign was centered on a cherry-picked nostalgia for his father’s rule. The Moro people will never forgive the betrayals and wars of Ferdinand Marcos Sr., who instituted martial law and undermined the 1976 Libyan-brokered peace agreement.

The MILF’s endorsement of Robredo could hurt leaders in future negotiations with the Marcos administration.

But there is unease for another reason: local politics.

Going up against dynasties

As part of the peace process, the MILF had to transform itself from a militant group into a legal political party.

The United Bangsamoro Justice Party (UBJP) was established in 2015 and contested elections for the first time in May 2022. As the party of the vanguard organization that fought and won greater autonomy, it had high expectations of popular support.

And yet, the UBJP found that entrenched political dynasties are hard to dislodge. The UBJP’s candidate lost the governorship of Maguindanao, the MILF’s heartland.

We simply do not know how gracious the MILF will be in electoral defeat, especially when it feels entitled to rule.

The MILF put itself in a hard spot by running candidates at a time when it is leading the transitional authority, which is supposed to be above partisanship. To date, the authority has been politically neutral.

But there is ample concern that the MILF will use the next three years to the benefit of UBJP candidates as it seeks to maintain power.

Moreover, we need to consider that 49 percent of BTA members are appointed by the Philippine president. Marcos’s intentions are unclear. Will he keep the Duterte appointed members, who have largely been committed to implementing the peace agreement? Will he select new faces, and if so, why and to what end?

Finally, the Marcos administration will be confronted by the Duterte government’s failure to fully rebuild Marawi following the 2017 failed takeover by the Mautes, Abu Sayyaf and foreign terrorist fighters. There remain thousands of aggrieved internally displaced people, who have been unable to return and rebuild their homes.

The Bangsamoro autonomous government is now more than two years old. There have been important milestones including the passing of laws to establish a parliamentary democracy. An elected government should be established in 2025.

Meanwhile, the MILF continues its process of surrendering weapons and demobilizing forces.

The first group of MILF combatants recently sat for the national police examination and there will be some integration into the military, as well.

Yet, the peace process is not irreversible. It will require sustained political commitment, good faith and financial resources.

And with Marcos’ intentions unclear, theres unease across Mindanao. He won with enough of the vote that he doesn’t need to curry favor with the Moro, a group he has not supported in the past.

In sum, the 2022 elections will have important implications for security in Mindanao, and that has implications for security across the region.

Zachary Abuza is a professor at the National War College in Washington and an adjunct at Georgetown University. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the U.S. Department of Defense, the National War College, Georgetown University or BenarNews.


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