When the Moro National Liberation Front declared independence in August last year, many thought that President Aquino’s latest peace deal with the Moro insurgents in Mindanao would need to be scuttled.
Just a month after the declaration of independence of a “Bangsamoro Republik,” MNLF leader Nur Misuari tried to hoist the MNLF flag over the city hall in Zamboanga, took 200 hostages and sparked a three-week long siege with government troops. Misuari and MNLF commander Habier Malik believed that the MNLF had been left out of the peace process - negotiated between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. So Aquino, and the country, are left wondering whether peace will last, and whether, like so many of his predecessors, the president will ultimately be compelled to declare yet another “all-out war” against insurgents in Mindanao.
Can the latest Framework Agreement create meaningful political space and perceived political participation that is inclusive enough for Christians and Muslims alike in the governance of resource-rich Mindanao? In an earlier article, we examined whether the 2012 multi-phased peace accords between the government and the MILF would be a viable political solution to the decades-long insurgency. Under the administration of then president Ramos, the government completed peace accords with the MNLF in 1996, creating the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) and installing Misuari as its governor. The ARMM will have to be dissolved under the current Framework, with a new MILF-led political entity — the Bangsamoro — taking its place. Misuari doubts that he and the MNLF will be able to participate in any power sharing arrangement with the MILF at the helm.
There is ample reason for concern. Since the signing of the Bangsamoro Framework in 2012, and up to the latest signing of the fourth and last Annex (decommissioning), government troops have clashed with Muslim separatists at least thrice. In September last year, forces comprising the Abu Sayyaf, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (a new splinter group of the MILF), and MNLF forces attacked the island of Basilan. Just days apart from the start of the Zamboanga siege, two more bombings occurred in shopping malls in Davao City, and it was only after 400 MNLF loyalists were killed or captured that government troops declared the Zamboanga crisis over. Other armed groups, including former rebels, either coalesce or break out into more mobile units at their own convenience, effectively prolonging the conflict and adding to uncertainty about whether the Framework Agreement will hold.
Rather than waging another ‘all-out war’ along the lines of his predecessors – notably, Presidents Estrada and Macapagal-Arroyo – President Aquino has responded with a policy of ‘all-out justice’ for the families of slain soldiers. In the aftermath of the Zamboanga siege, the Department of Justice filed charges against Misuari and his cohorts for human rights violations and for using civilians as human shields, effectively turning the tables on the MNLF and placing the group on the defensive.
While there can be no doubt that the Mindanao conflict is not a simple police matter, any solution to the conflict must address broader poverty alleviation measures, issues related to economic growth, and questions of political legitimacy. So far, Aquino and his peace negotiators have kept in place the boiler plate provisions of modern power sharing accords, with four Annexes dealing with wealth and power sharing, normalization, decommissioning, territorial waters, and a ‘transitional’ commission or council. There are hortatory references to norms and modalities of transitional justice and reconciliation.
Can President Aquino’s platform for ‘all-out justice’ (playing up the more ‘criminal’ elements of banditry and deliberately avoiding war rhetoric) be effective against breakaway Islamist factions? Any meaningful peace accord must appeal to ground commanders and leadership, as well as the people of the region. Aquino distinguished himself from past presidents a year ago by making a visit to an MILF camp in Maguindanao province where he and MILF leader Hashim Salamat handed out government medical benefits and education scholarships to the families of MILF fighters and their children. More such overtures will be necessary in the future to demonstrate his government’s commitment to the process and the people.
The ultimate challenge, however, remains to encourage other rebel groups to feel like a legitimate part of the peace process. It remains to be seen whether the provisions of the Bangsamoro Framework can accommodate all parties’ political aspirations. Legitimate or not, the newly formed Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters and Misuari’s increasingly restive MNLF feel politically and socially ostracized — a problem that must be resolved. This issue implies greater normative questions, such as whether peace can be a pact or must be a process, and whether such a process must be enshrined in the Philippine Constitution. Faced with Islamist rebels who are increasingly sceptical over the workings of the government system, President Aquino has the double burden of meeting expectations of rebels, on one hand, and Christianized versions of what ‘ought’ to be the rule of law, on the other.
Because the Philippines is a constitutional democracy, President Aquino must tailor the provisions of the Framework so that they can pass muster before the Philippine Supreme Court. This is doubly important because a previous peace agreement with the Muslim rebels was declared unconstitutional by the Court in 2008 for attempting to bargain away ancestral domain in the name of Muslim ‘self-rule.’ Voting 8-7, judges of the Supreme Court described the peace process – then under President Macapagal-Arroyo – as “whimsical, capricious, oppressive, arbitrary and despotic.” Immediately following the court’s decision, fighting renewed, and MILF fighters captured several towns in the southern province of Lanao del Norte.
It is the same MILF who will now take the reins of power under the current Framework. Aquino wants to be able to end four decades of insurgent violence before he steps down in 2016. Given his forcefulness and approach to this issue, it is doubtful that any successor will stand a better chance of achieving success. At the same time, if history is any guide, it is doubtful that a smooth and conflict-free transition will take place in Mindanao. To be successful, the MILF and the MNLF must first bury the hatchet. This seems about as likely as Mindanao’s successful secession from the union. So our guess is that the current Framework will end up being temporary – ultimately done in by political infighting among the insurgents and more instances of terrorism. If that is the case, this Framework may turn out to have been the last real chance for peace in Mindanao.