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Philippines: Peace Process with MILF More Imperative Than Ever

Commentary by Zachary Abuza
2017-11-29
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Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) guerrillas patrol the marshlands against Islamic State-linked militants in Datu Salibo in the southern Philippine province of Maguindanao, Nov. 2017.
Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) guerrillas patrol the marshlands against Islamic State-linked militants in Datu Salibo in the southern Philippine province of Maguindanao, Nov. 2017.
Mark Navales/BenarNews

The five-month siege of Marawi by pro-Islamic State militants demonstrated the degree to which Mindanao remains a draw for militants around the region. Only in the southern Philippines do Islamist militants have hope of seizing an entire city for months as they did in Marawi or have sufficient control over territory from which they can regroup, train and stage attacks.

And it is for that reason that the peace process between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) must become a priority. The MILF is the largest militant group in Mindanao that controls the most territory.

To his credit, President Rodrigo Duterte has acknowledged the primacy of the peace process, and has on several occasions since the siege's end in late October stated that the passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) – the peace process' implementing legislation – is a priority.

The BBL has been in limbo since January 2015, when the Philippine National Police launched a counter-terrorist operation in MILF-controlled territory without going through the cease-fire mechanisms. The raid led to the death of 44 police. It was a tactical fiasco with strategic implications. The BBL, which was then being deliberated in Congress, was shelved. Politicians who were gearing up for May 2016 elections used the hearings on the Mamasapano incident to advance their careers; there were few votes to win by supporting peace.

Since 2015, the MILF leadership has repeatedly expressed their commitment to abide by the peace agreement, has put heavy weaponry beyond use, and renounced armed conflict as the means to achieve autonomy. Nonetheless they have been treated with significant mistrust by Philippine legislators.

With little to show from the peace process, the MILF had few "peace dividends" to offer their rank and file. The MILF could not stem defections from their ranks to some six separate groups that pledged baiyat to the Islamic State (IS). The MILF leadership was increasingly seen by angry young Moros as, at best, dupes continually suckered by government promises of autonomy, or, at worst, collaborators.

During the siege of Marawi, the MILF proved their worth, opening up key humanitarian corridors, which helps explain why the civilian death toll in the conflict that left the city in ruins was so low.

Only the MILF has the capability and resources to police their territory and root out extremists. They have the potential to establish, under the BBL, a truly autonomous government that protects religious and cultural values, as a viable alternative to the brutally violent "caliphate project" of pro-IS groups.

As the group's Chairman Ebrahim el-Haj Murad recently said to Channel News Asia:

The longer this peace process takes, the more people are going to be radicalized. What we see now is they [pro-IS groups] are capitalizing on the delay of the peace process. They try to influence young people [by saying] tens of years have been spent on the peace process but nothing happened. They try to get young people to join their group, saying that only by means of violence, could we achieve our aims. History has shown that every time the peace process fails, you will have splinter groups. They always end up being more radical.

Duterte inherently knows this. But despite his repeated pledges to push through the BBL, there are substantial hurdles. Let me highlight five.

First, many lawmakers have made MILF's unilateral disarmament a precondition to taking up the BBL again. This is a non-starter to the MILF; the recourse to armed conflict is their insurance policy that the government will implement the agreement. The 2014 Peace Agreement makes clear that disarmament will be phased in with each successful implementation milestone.

Second, one cannot underestimate the suspicion of members of the Philippine Congress towards the MILF.  Their prejudices are deep-seated, and few congressmen see any political gains in supporting the BBL. Despite Duterte's commitment to the BBL and his high popularity, so far no lawmaker has agreed to endorse it. Without a legislative sponsor, the bill cannot be debated, let alone approved.

Third, despite Duterte's nominal support for the BBL, his legislative priority remains a constitutional amendment to establish a federal system. Is he willing to expend political capital on the BBL, which few in Congress support? Duterte constantly – and I would say intentionally – conflates the BBL with federalism. While the MILF do not oppose federalism, for them it has to be something independent of the BBL, which addresses core grievances, has transitional justice mechanisms, allows them to establish their own system of governance, allows for the establishment of Sharia courts, guarantees revenue sharing, and paves the way for disarmament.

Fourth, the BBL that will be submitted by the Malacañang presidential palace to Congress will not be the BBL that was submitted in 2015. This is going to be a dramatically watered down version. For example, Duterte recently ruled out the Bangsamoro having any independent police or security forces. "I am objecting to an independent regional armed forces and police. We only have one Republic of the Philippines. There should only be one Philippine National Police and one Armed Forces. I cannot compromise on that.” Nor can the MILF.

Fifth, Duterte has said that he will only support the BBL if it is “inclusive,” i.e., includes the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and other groups. This is a red herring. The Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB) and the BBL are inclusive agreements, but ego and rivalry have hindered inclusion.

In 1996 the government signed an autonomy agreement with the Moro National Liberation Front that the MILF rejected. The MILF became a larger movement that ultimately controlled more territory, while the MNLF factionalized and mismanaged itself largely to irrelevance outside of the Sulu archipelago. Many in the MNLF resist the government's peace agreement with the MILF, which would legally supersede and nullify the MNLF’s 1996 accord.

That's why the CAB establishes a parliamentary form of government in the Bangsamoro. The CAB does not turn governance over to the MILF. It establishes a parliamentary system, which ensures the MNLF will have a voice because the MILF's support throughout Basilan, Sulu, Tawi Tawi, and Zamboanga is paltry.

Yet Duterte has established a second and parallel peace process with his old colleague Nur Misuari. The former MNLF chairman has on two occasions resumed armed conflict when things didn't go his way. Indeed, Duterte has had to lift the arrest warrant on Misuari for his last armed insurrection to even negotiate with him.

The security situation in Mindanao is devolving, and that has security implications for the region, not just the Philippines. A peace process with the MILF is more imperative than ever, yet the impediments remain high. But should Duterte and Congress fail to deliver one thing is certain: there will be more Marawis, as the MILF continues to splinter and loses any incentive to police its territory.

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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