Philippines’ peace process could fall apart after elections

By: Logan Connor - Posted on: April 8, 2016 | Current Affairs

President Aquino came within a whisker of clinching peace in the Philippines’ restive south. But with presidential elections looming, the process threatens to unravel

With just one decision, the Philippine Congress consigned President Benigno Aquino III to an eternity in the record books as a failure. When Congress decided, in February, to adjourn until after next month’s presidential election, it effectively ended any hopes Aquino had of forcing through the legislation that would have sealed his legacy.

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Decommissioning: MILF chairman Murad Ebrahim, far left, and President Benigno Aquino III (yellow shirt) inspect surrendered rebel firearms. Photo: Mark Navales

The peace accord known as the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) would have established a new political entity known as the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region, providing autonomy to the primarily Muslim southern region that has long been plagued by conflict and displacement.

The legislative standstill was partly attributable to violence flaring on the island of Mindanao on 20 February. As of early March, the government claimed 42 militant deaths, a Philippine army corporal had been beheaded and roughly 2,000 civilians fled their homes to escape the fighting, according to CNN Philippines.

The whole regrettable situation comes just two years after a historic breakthrough was being hailed.

In March 2014, more than 17 years of negotiations had come to fruition. Leaders of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the region’s largest rebel group, met with the Philippine government and penned the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB), which gave Muslim Mindanao basic governmental capacities. Just over a year later, a smiling Aquino was photographed at an event in which the MILF handed over its first batch of weapons as part of the peace process. The passing of the BBL would have augmented the powers granted under the CAB, but that now looks virtually impossible, at least in its current form.

As recently as last month, Aquino was still jockeying for the BBL, advocating for the legislation during the inauguration of a power plant in Mindanao. “We need to make sure that this region has a framework that can truly make good, inclusive governance the norm rather than the exception,” Aquino told attendees at the ceremony. “This is why we need to pass the Bangsamoro Basic Law in the soonest possible time… I believe it would certainly push Mindanao, and the Philippines, further into the global spotlight.”

Yet as elections draw closer the possibility of an autonomous Muslim Mindanao dwindles, with many citing languid bureaucracy, lawmaker apathy and intermittent violence as the primary culprits.

The origins of the BBL can be traced back at least to the 1970s when rebel forces fought a primarily guerrilla ground war, though Ismael G. Kulat, senior programme officer for the Consortium of Bangsamoro Civil Society (CBCS), argued that the roots of the struggle extend much further.

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The negotiator: Miriam Coronel-Ferrer speaks during a press conference. EPA/Azhar Rahim

“The current battle of the Moro people [Muslim inhabitants of the Philippines] for their right to self-determination is a continuation of their struggle against colonisers in this country,” said Kulat, whose group acts as an umbrella organisation for Bangsamoro NGOs. “Our forefathers resisted from the time of the Spaniards, the Americans, the Japanese. And now is the continuation of that struggle.”

Regardless of when the protracted conflict began, many had hoped it would end in self-governance. After lawmakers passed the CAB in 2014, the Philippine government began to help develop the newly christened Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao, building roads, schools and hospitals in one of the poorest regions
of the Philippines, where at least 3.5 million people have been forced to flee their homes since 2000,
according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre.

Yet the MILF may, in fact, be wary of such government olive branches. “The MILF is very suspicious of what looks like classic counter-terrorism ‘hearts and minds’ operations – putting in roads and providing medicine and schools, all these things,” said Tim Johnston, Asia programme director at International Crisis Group, an NGO that works to prevent conflict. “I think these things need to be done in a transparent way, with the inclusion of the MILF, so they don’t get spooked.”

Indeed, it wasn’t long until relations were strained once more. In January 2015, 44 Special Action Force (SAF) officers died in a botched counter-terrorism raid that has become known as the Mamasapano Massacre. After their radios failed and equipment backfired, the officers were pinned down and in need of assistance that never came.

In February, a House of Representatives independent bloc found that Aquino was “ultimately responsible” for the losses and also mentioned “an elaborate effort to cover up the monumental blunders committed”. The government officials implicated in the cover-up included current presidential hopeful Manuel Roxas II, who was then secretary of the interior.

These findings did nothing to enliven tepid attitudes toward the BBL. “There were a number of members of Congress who were either antipathetic to the law or less than enthusiastic,” said Ronald May, an emeritus fellow at the Australian National University who is an expert on the southern Philippines conflict. “The Mamasapano Massacre certainly increased that antipathy.”

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Show of force: Filipino soldiers stand guard inside a provincial capital building in Maguindanao Provincein March 2015. EPA/Ritchie B. Tongo

Now, with presidential elections coming next month, few are optimistic about the future of the BBL. “When the new government takes power in July, they’re going to be backing up a little bit, getting their feet on the ground,” said Johnston. “They’re going to be making progress, but in formal terms it starts from scratch.”

In a relatively rare show of solidarity, in November, key players from both sides showed they have not given up hope, when MILF chief negotiator Mohagher Iqbal and Miriam Coronel-Ferrer, chairman of the office of the presidential advisor to the peace process, issued a joint statement directed at lawmakers. “Time is short, but there is still time,” the statement said. “We ask our legislators to work for the immediate passage of the draft law on the Bangsamoro. Time is of the essence and opportunity knocks only once.”

Coronel-Ferrer, the government’s top negotiator with the MILF, has been a conciliatory voice in the conflict, mediating interactions between the rebels and the Philippine government. “There’s a disappointment with the failure of Congress to finish the legislative process,” Coronel-Ferrer told Southeast Asia Globe. “But the agreement is still there and the leadership of the MILF continues to move forward. Our message to everyone is this: we know the disappointment; we feel it ourselves. But it’s very important to persevere and have patience in the coming months.”

Even with the MILF on board, certain splinter groups have vowed to continue fighting, rejecting the terms of the BBL. In fact, a video from January 2015 shows leaders of several prominent extremist groups in Mindanao pledging allegiance to Isis. The MILF has made considerable effort to distance itself from such factions, and both the MILF and government leadership have pledged to uphold peace until 2017.

Yet the unrest in Mindanao continues.

Coronel-Ferrer was certain that the recent violence would not impede the progress of the BBL, saying that “the agreement is still secure”. And there are others who remain optimistic about its success, although they believe it may take longer than President Aquino had hoped.

“If the new government, the MILF and other stakeholders remain committed and are ready to build trust rather than mistrust, there is every chance that peace will continue in Bangsamoro and the law [will be] passed,” said Leena Rikkila Tamang, Asia-Pacific regional director for intergovernmental organisation the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance. “But it will take strong political will from the next government.”

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