A Just and Lasting Peace on the Horizon

By Dr Amina Rasul

I. The Precursor: Government-MNLF Peace Process

Over the last 40 years, the Philippines has been on a rocky, twisted path to peace in Muslim Mindanao as government has attempted to find a political solution to the wars of independence waged by the Moro liberation fronts. The basis of the war of independence: when the United States Government granted independence to the Philippines on July 4, 1946, it had illegally annexed the sovereign sultanates to the newly established Republic. Independence, ensconced in the hearts and minds of Moro activists, has been set aside for genuine autonomy for the Bangsamoro.

Any analysis of autonomy in Muslim Mindanao cannot be meaningfully accomplished without a discussion of the historical antecedents that have determined the path in which peace and development have been pursued in the southern Philippines. This discussion of autonomy cannot be divorced from the different stages in the peace efforts with the Muslim separatists, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). After all, it was to conciliate the interests of the Muslims as represented by the MNLF that the idea of autonomy in Muslim Mindanao was first advanced.

The military operations of then President Ferdinand E. Marcos, who needed a justification to be able to rule indefinitely , lit the fuse of the Moro war for independence. Marcos proclaimed Martial Law, using Muslim secessionism in Mindanao as one of two major threats . The MNLF, under Professor Nur Misuari, was organized in reaction to Martial Law and the fear of genocide felt by the Muslims.

Unable to win the war against the MNLF, Marcos sought the assistance of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) to broker peace talks. The government and the MNLF signed the Tripoli Agreement in 1976. The MNLF later denounced Marcos for violating the agreement and resumed hostilities .

President Corazon C. Aquino, who won on the shoulders of People Power against Marcos, resumed the peace process with the MNLF. Under her administration, Congress passed Republic Act 6734 (An Act Providing For An Organic Act For The Autonomous Region In Muslim Mindanao). A plebiscite was implemented to allow the provinces identified under the Tripoli Agreement, to vote on whether or not they would join the ARMM. Only Sulu, Tawitawi, Maguindanao and Lanao del Sur joined. The MNLF boycotted the plebiscite, accusing the government of taking unilateral action on the creation of the ARMM.

It would take the administration of President Fidel V. Ramos to bring back the MNLF to the peace table. On September 2, 1996, the Philippine Government and the MNLF signed the “Final Agreement on the Implementation of the 1976 Tripoli Agreement”. The first peace agreement signed in South East Asia, the historic act earned for MNLF Chair Nur Misuari and President Ramos the UNESCO Felix Houphouet-Boigny Peace Prize.

The Final Peace Agreement (FPA) between the GRP and the MNLF contained 81 points of consensus on defence, education, economic and financial systems, mines and minerals, Shari‘ah courts, representation in the national government, the functions of the Executive Department under an elected Regional Governor and the Regional Legislative Assembly.

To implement the 1996 FPA, the Philippine Congress, in 2001, passed Republic Act 9054 to amend RA 6734. During the plebiscite that followed on August 14, Muslim dominated Basilan Province and Marawi City finally joined ARMM.

II. The GPH-MILF Framework Agreement for the Bangsamoro

It has been 17 long years after the signing of the 1996 FPA. The path to peace has been tumultuous and rocky even as the government undertook a peace process with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.

The reality of ARMM, which had led President Benigno Aquino III to label it as a “failed experiment”, is this: years after the signing of the 1996 FPA, Muslim Mindanao remains as the least served region with the lowest human development indicators, poorest of the poor, and has the lowest contribution to Gross Domestic Product. It has become even more conflict affected since 1996 and has the highest unemployment rate, with half of the adult population in the dark due to illiteracy (some 600,000 of adults, half of the voting population, are functionally illiterate ). The ARMM Regional Government, burdened by inefficiency and lack of funds for development as well as plagued by corruption since 1996, has failed to deliver dividends of peace to the Bangsamoro.

The negotiations between the government of President Aquino and the MILF have yielded the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro (FAB). To us, the agreement signed on October 15, 2012, is a harbinger of hope. The details of the agreement, however, will be contained in four annexes, which will cover the transitional mechanism, revenue and wealth sharing, power sharing, and normalisation. To date, only the first two have been signed.

The framework agreement builds on the achievements of the 1996 FPA, which itself was based on the 1976 Tripoli Agreement. It also picks up the core issues resolved by the rejected Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD) .

With this October 15 accord, a New Political Entity for the Bangsamoro would be established. The Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao would be abolished and perhaps will be called the Autonomous Region of the Bangsamoro.

The FAB will recreate the existing ARMM to make it truly autonomous. The Transition Commission, tasked to draft the Basic Law that will set up the new autonomous political entity called “Bangsamoro” by June 30, 2016, has been established. President Aquino appointed members of the TC on February 25, 2013. Mohagher Iqbal, the head of the MILF Negotiating Panel, chairs the TC. Eight of the members are with the MILF and 7 are with government.

The FAB adopted a ministerial system for the new region, wherein the Bangsamoro Government’s relationship with the national government is ascribed as “asymmetric”. It may have greater territorial jurisdiction if the residents of the identified barangays and municipalities agree to join the new region, in a plebiscite to be conducted after Congress passes the Basic Law. Government believes that it is unnecessary to amend the constitution in order to create this new entity.

This historic Framework Agreement is the closest we have come to ensuring lasting and just peace as well as equitable development in Mindanao.

However, we at the PCID caution: “the greater challenge is the transition period. It would be make or break for Muslim Mindanao. MILF and all stakeholders of the Bangsamoro must be able to quickly but effectively respond to the new peace and development formation, or risk permanent failure on top of the flawed ARMM experiment.”

The process of creating the basic law, from draft to congressional approval, must be truly inclusive , as the agreement states: “It shall be formulated by the people and ratified by the qualified voters within its territory.” However, PCID’s year long research on the State of Local Democracy of the ARMM has revealed the general obliviousness of local residents on autonomy and the ARMM — in spite of its decades of existence — and is generally not consulted on any crucial issue. This ignorance and lack of consultations must be rectified, if all affected citizens are to support the New Political Entity.

I believe the Philippines and the MILF should learn from the mistakes of the past, particularly the experience of the MNLF in the implementation of the 1996 Final Peace Agreement. Further, we should learn from the successes and experiences of other countries in implementing autonomy. A case in point is Catalonia, Spain. Barcelona, the centre of the autonomous region of Catalonia, is the 4th richest city in the European Union and a principal port. In addition to the economic progress of the region, perhaps the Philippine negotiating panels could study the functioning autonomous Catalan Police (the Spanish Police stays outside the region and is responsible for maintaining the borders).

Catalonia today remains a strong autonomy and economic centre within the Spanish State. Such an experience could provide a template for the transformation of Muslim Mindanao into a truly autonomous region, politically, socially and economically.

Perhaps, this time, the Bangsamoro will find a just and lasting peace. Hope springs eternal.

Post-script: The recent armed conflict between troops loyal to MNLF Chair Nur Misuari and government (September 8 to 28) in Zamboanga City is a threat to the peace process between government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. Zamboanga City has 73% Christian population while less than 27% are Muslims. The city serves as the hub of commerce for the Muslim dominated provinces of Sulu, Tawitawi and Basilan. MNLF troops led by Ustadz Havier Malik, loyal to Misuari, entered Zamboanga City on September 8 and held off government troops in 5 Muslim dominated barangays (villages) for over 20 days. 120,000 were displaced, some 200 killed, more than 10,000 homes burned. The Misuari loyalists reportedly laid siege to the city to protest the government’s violation of the Final Peace Agreement signed by government and the MNLF in 1996, a charge Misuari had made many times in the past. The question now is this: will this armed conflict derail the government’s peace process with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which is reportedly close to succeeding? Efforts are underway to ensure that it will not.

– Dr Amina Rasul,
President of the think tank Philippine Centre for Islam and Democracy.