Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Philippines -: Running in Place in Mindanao

Asia Briefing N°88
International Crisis Group


Six months after the collapse of autonomy nego­tia­tions between the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the Philippines government, low-intensity conflict continues but moves are under way to resurrect talks. It is not clear whether negotiations will resume and if they do, with what agenda. Certainly no settlement is likely during the remaining tenure of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo; the two sides are too far apart, the potential spoilers too numerous, and the political will too weak. The best that can be hoped for is progress around the edges.

The priority should be a ceasefire in central Mindanao that would allow displaced civilians to return home. It would also help to strengthen the structure for talks to ensure that if and when another agreement is reached, it will have a better chance of surviving than the ill-fated Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD or MOA) that was dead on arrival in August 2008. Two measures already underway deserve more attention: consultations that would allow potential spoilers to raise concerns in a way that could feed into the negotiations, and development aimed at strength­ening human resources in the proposed autonomous region.

Even if these aims were achieved, the task of reaching a formal agreement is daunting. A Supreme Court ruling in October 2008 that the MOA was unconstitutional makes it impossible to go back to the August text, even though the MILF continues to insist it is a “done deal”. If it decides to resume talks, the MILF will have to decide whether it will go for a revised agree­ment on land or a final “comprehensive compact” that incorporates key principles from the MOA. Publicly, the MILF insists that a separate agreement on land must come first, but if the right formula were found, it might be more flexible.

None of the political obstacles that killed the MOA have been removed; if anything, positions have hardened. The Supreme Court decision effectively makes constitu­tional change a prerequisite for any power-sharing arrangement between Manila and the future Moro home­land – known as the Bangsamoro Juridical Entity (BJE). An arrangement that the current constitution would permit would be unacceptable to the MILF because it would entail too much central control; the MILF, to be credible to its own supporters, has to secure greater self-government and control over more land and resources than was obtained in a 1996 agree­ment by the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), the group from which it split in 1981. President Arroyo’s opponents believe she would exploit any effort at “char­­ter change” to try and extend her own term in office, so no moves in that direction are even thinkable until after a new president is elected in May 2010. At present, none of the possible contenders seem to consider the peace process a priority.

Even then, there will still be conservatives worried about dismemberment of the republic, powerful non-Muslim groups in Mindanao with no desire to come under Moro control, and a military convinced it can crush the guerrillas. The Arroyo government made no effort to bring these groups on board while the MOA was being negotiated, nor did it make any effort to defend the agreement reached by its own peace panel. It is unlikely to have much political will to deal with the spoilers as the 2010 elections approach, and it is questionable whether any successor government will have more – but a contact group of interested donors could give it much-needed incentives. Consultations and dialogues are not going to help unless they are focused enough to provide creative new options to negotiators or concrete reassurances to nervous non-Moros.

In the meantime, military operations against three “ren­egade” MILF commanders continue in a large swathe of central Mindanao, with relatively few deaths but large-scale displacement. The military says the operations will cease when the three, whose units were involved in attacks on civilians, are captured or the MILF turns them in; the MILF says it should be up to an inter­national monitoring team to determine whether the men were responsible for ceasefire violations. Both sides face internal pressure to take an uncompromising stance, but there are several ways out of the stalemate, and a good mediator could find them.

Forward movement on some of the side issues should lead to no illusions, therefore, that a final settlement is in sight but it could build confidence and improve the atmosphere for negotiations. Getting a ceasefire in cen­tral Mindanao would be an important achievement in humanitarian terms alone.

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