In July 2018, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte signed the long-delayed Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL), commencing the long and complicated process to implement the 2014 peace agreement with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
Success of the next step – the holding of a plebiscite in which six towns in Lanao del Norte provinces, 29 barangays (villages) in nearby North Cotabato, and the cities of Cotabato and Isabela will have the opportunity to vote on whether to join the new autonomous region – is not a foregone conclusion.
The plebiscite, which is being organized by the MILF-led 80-man Bangsamoro Transition Commission, is scheduled for Jan. 21, 2019. Failure to pass, all or in part, will not cause the peace process to fail, but it will weaken it. There are seven inter-connected reasons why it might not pass.
First, there is far more Christian migration to this region than the MILF would care to acknowledge. Indeed, when they began talks with the government in 2003, their original pitch was for 3,878 barangays to be included in the new autonomous region. The government more or less called their bluff and suggested a census to find out how many of the barangays were Muslim-majority.
The reality is that Muslims are now a minority in much of what they consider their ancestral domain. Even in the current plebiscite, several of the towns in Lanao del Norte are majority Christian.
Second, Mindanao has a particularly endemic culture of vote-buying, especially by the major clans. This plebiscite will be no different.
Third, the BOL is not the original Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro reached in 2014. It has been watered down in significant ways – beyond the diminished geographical scope – that have fueled resentment.
In particular, the loss of the right for an internal police force has rankled many, and that in itself may make disarmament and demobilization an even harder task. Funding for disarmament and demobilization is anemic, and without a peace dividend, there are simply too many young men, with few prospects, with guns.
Fourth, there are many spoilers to the peace process. In the past month, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fights (BIFF) has perpetrated a spate of deadly bombings. This has prompted heavy handed and counter-productive military reprisals, which have caused civilian casualties, further alienating the population.
The Abu Sayyaf group has also stepped up attacks and kidnappings, including their first maritime kidnappings in over a year. These kidnappings serve to raise funds for future attacks. The spate of recent kidnappings portends a new offensive.
The pro-Islamic State group Maute has been mobilizing in Lanao del Sur with an armed strength large enough to engage the Armed Forces of the Philippines, a year after the siege of Marawi ended.
These groups have every interest in spoiling the peace process and intimidating people not to vote. Pre-plebiscite violence will be high.
Fifth, unlike the full-throated public education and information campaign that the respective peace panels waged in 2014 to early 2015, there is very little effort being put into educating the public about the plebiscite.
The implementing legislation for the Comprehensive Agreement of the Bangsamoro (CAB) was stalled in Congress since January 2015 when a botched counter-terrorism raid resulted in a clash with MILF combatants that left 44 police dead – just as campaigning for national elections was commencing.
Prior to the Mamasapano incident, town hall meetings were held across Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago. There are information forums, but far fewer. Too many communities are too remote, too isolated for those public fora, or it's simply too dangerous to go in and wage these public information campaigns. Internet penetration is still very limited in rural areas.
The Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (OPAPP) is doing little in terms of its public information campaigns. Likewise, the MILF continuously overstates its public support and influence.
Moreover, there has not been sufficient buy-in from the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) communities throughout Zamboanga, Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi. While the agreement is supposed to be implemented “without prejudice to the participation of the Moro National Liberation Front,” many MNLF still see the CAB/BOL process as undermining their 1996 agreement with the government.
And whether due to donor fatigue, other concerns, or simply being caught off guard by the BOL’s passage, the bilateral and multilateral donor community has not been as active or vocal as one might have expected.
What’s more, the overall security situation has devolved since early 2015 when the peace process stalled. There has been a proliferation of pro-Islamic state groupings, fragmentation of the MILF and increasing activity by the communist New People's Army across Mindanao.
Sixth, while the Philippines has sufficient electoral procedures, one thing that it is really not equipped to handle is the number of people still displaced from the Marawi siege. More than 400,000 people fled. While some are living in camps for Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) – which should make voter registration easier – the majority are living with extended family outside the immediate area.
IDP voting is critical. This population is already seething at what they believe to be the slow pace and the government's mishandling of the reconstruction. These people cannot be disenfranchised.
Seventh, Duterte’s ultimate goal is the establishment of a federal system. In 2016, he infuriated the MILF when he told them that he was shelving their peace process and forging ahead with federalism. The MILF balked, and Duterte ultimately expended the political capital to get the BOL passed, but reluctantly. If the plebiscite failed, it would not necessarily be on him, and then he could go back with a renewed push for a constitutional amendment to establish a federal system.
Expect more violence if plebiscite fails
If the plebiscite passes, with high voter turnout, that will be a positive step, and we will then move on to the establishment of new (parliamentary style) political institutions and the regional elections in mid-2019.
The failure of local government units to vote for inclusion into prior autonomous regions was an irritant in 1976 and 1996, weakening those peace processes. But it could be worse this time around.
If the plebiscite fails, or has such low voter turnout that its legitimacy could be called into question, then we should expect the implementation of the next steps to go less smoothly. We should also expect to see more fragmentation of the MILF, less cooperation between them and the MNLF, and more violence to spoil the fragile peace process.
This peace process has the potential to right historical wrongs and bring a degree of peace to a land that has been riddled with pervasive insecurity for over 40 years. And because of the number of armed groups, and amount of weakly governed space, Mindanao has always attracted foreign militants.
So what happens there has regional security implications.
The peace process matters, and every effort must be made in ensuring its successful implementation.
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.