Sunday, September 21, 2014


“The political will on both sides has enabled hard choices and meaningful concessions to be made for the sake of peace. Yet there remain numerous challenges. ”

Despite the fanfare surrounding the October 2012 peace agreement between the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP), the security environment in central Mindanao is far from secure. Although it is a great opportunity for peace and the subsequent development of the poorest region of a poor country, there are four developments to watch: 1) the legal impasse in the drafting of the Bangsamoro Basic Law; 2) the rivalry between the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and MILF which threatens the entire peace process; 3) the recent spate of attacks by the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF); and 4) the disarmament, demobilization and rehabilitation (DDR) of MILF combatants. While any one of them would not be enough to scuttle the peace process, two or more could be a major setback. A durable political settlement is the key to lifting the residents of Mindanao and Sulu out of poverty and ending the cycle of violence that has left some 60,000 people dead.

I. Background on the Peace Agreement

The GRP and MILF began peace talks in 1997, following the 2 September 1996 peace accord between the GRP and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). The MNLF, founded in 1968, was a larger rebel group but had weakened since their heyday in 1976. That year, a Libyan- brokered autonomy agreement was concluded, but never implemented by Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos. Hostilities resumed, though at a lower level. By 1996 the MNLF was able to negotiate a peace accord with the government that led to the MNLF being able to administer the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), previously established under the administration of Corazon Aquino, though without any authority. Most of the territory that was eligible to join, however, opted out in plebiscites. Only five provinces (Maguindanao, Lanao del Sur, Basilan, Sulu, and Tawi Tawi) ended up joining the ARMM, which was tragically mismanaged and mired in corruption. The government bore much responsibility, reneging on key provisions of the agreement.

The MILF broke away from the MNLF in 1978, formally establishing themselves in 1984. The MILF was led by the Al Azaar-educated cleric Salamat Hashim, who rejected the MNLF secularism and tactical alliance with the atheist New People’s Army. Salamat moved the MILF headquarters from Tripoli, Libya to Lahore, Pakistan, and based it in the Jamaat i-Islamiya’s compound. There, the MILF tried to position itself as a part of the global Islamist struggle, and sent members to Pakistan and Afghanistan for military training. The MILF was committed to establishing an Islamic state governed by sharia for the Muslims of the southern Philippines, known as the Bangsamoro. The MILF went from being a fringe organization to the largest armed group in the Philippines almost over night, as many MNLF commanders rejected the 1996 accord with the government and defected to the MILF.

The MILF rejected the 1996 accord and was instead, determined to fight for an independent homeland. Since the MILF, the Abu Sayyaf group and a host of well-armed kidnapping gangs were active throughout the region, the government maintained a heavy security presence. Autonomy was only in name. The MNLF leadership voted to oust founder and leader Nur Misuari in 2001 who then called on his followers to take up arms again. Few joined their former leader, who eventually fled to Malaysia where he was detained, rendered to the Philippines and held for over a decade under house arrest. The MNLF remained divided amongst three distinct factions, headed by Misuari, Musliminin Semma and Hatamil Hassan. Around 2,000 MNLF combatants were integrated into the police and Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), depriving them of trained manpower. Many of Misuari’s supporters in Sulu joined with their fellow ethnic Tausugs in the Abu Sayyaf, engaging in kidnapping for ransom.

The MILF continued peace talks with the government. In 1997, the Agreement on General Cessation of Hostilities was established, but in 2000, an AFP offensive captured the MILF’s primary base area, Camp Abu Bakar. Another AFP offensive in 2003 saw the loss of Camp Rajamudah. From 2003, the MILF never won an engagement on the battlefield and saw more of its territory fall under government control as roads, commerce, and social services began to penetrate the interior. The Cotabato-Davao highway was reopened and a peace dividend set in. The local community pressured the MILF to negotiate. The MILF dropped their demand for an independent state and accepted autonomy: what was at stake was the size of the “ancestral domain” of the Bangsamoro, that is, the amount of land that should be included within a new autonomous region. The MILF argued that it was the existing ARMM plus 3,978 Muslim-majority barangays; the government contended that it only included 613 Muslim-majority barangays. Malaysian-led peacekeeping and joint mechanisms to deal with law and order were established in 2003, both of which helped to build confidence and intervene in any cease fire violations. By 2007 a draft accord, the Memorandum of Understanding on Ancestral Domain (MOAD), was reached, but President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo rejected her own negotiators’draft due to pressure from the military and hardliners in her cabinet. The Supreme Court subsequently found the draft unconstitutional. Some MILF base commanders went on a rampage in 2008, threatening a full resumption of hostilities.

Yet the MILF could not sustain the offensive, and talks with the Aquino administration began in the fall of 2010, following his May election. The GRP and the MILF both had reasons to reach an accord. The MILF was a shadow of its former self, militarily weaker and unable to sustain combat operations. The protracted peace process had weakened its supply lines and training program. Increasingly they were beset by intense factional disputes between hardliners who wanted to quit the peace process and moderates. The MILF also faced greater international scrutiny due to its relationship with the regional Al-Qaeda affiliate, Jemaah Islamiyah. Finally, MILF hold over the population was weakening as the de facto peace dividend set in. There was no popular support for a resumption of hostilities since the ceasefire had an immediate and positive economic impact.

On the government’s side, President Aquino was keen to finish the job that his mother, President Corazon Aquino, had started. With an increasingly assertive China pressuring the Philippines EEZ, Aquino was also desperate to reorient the AFP from internal security and make investments in maritime capabilities to defend the country’s EEZ. Given the considerations on both sides, the window of opportunity to reach an agreement with the current generation of leaders was closing and would lead to the splintering of the organization.

In August 2011, President Aquino held a secret meeting with MILF Chairman Ebrahim el Haj Murad in Tokyo and persuaded the rebels to return to peace talks. Although there was significant mistrust on the part of the MILF, battlefield realities compelled them to negotiate. They ended up accepting even less than what had been negotiated in 2007 in the Memorandum of Understanding on Ancestral Domain.

However, not all MILF commanders were on board. In 2010-11, a hardline group of MILF combatants, under the leadership of Ustadz Ameril Umbra Kato broke away and founded the BIFF, rejecting Murad’s leadership and the peace process. Others, such as Wahid Tondok threatened to follow suit.

Finally, on 15 October 2012 the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro (FAB) was concluded paving the way for a formal end to the MILF’s insurgency and the establishment of the legal mechanisms to create a new self-governing entity.

II. The Current Impasse

Following the conclusion of the FAB on 15 October 2012, the two sides began working on four detailed annexes that were concluded by the end of January 2014.

1. Transitional Arrangements and Modalities (27 February 2013) established the Bangsamoro Transition Commission and established rules of operation and membership. This agreement laid out the roadmap for how the Bangsamoro region would be established.

2. Revenue Generation and Wealth Sharing (14 July 2013), generously gave the MILF 75 percent of tax revenues and mineral wealth. In addition, the two sides concluded an agreement on the “Addendum on Bangsamoro Waters” that demarcates the authority and wealth sharing on the waters that surround future Bangsamoro territories.

3. Power Sharing (8 December 2013) established a parliamentary system of government for the Bangsamoro, and outlined the power, functions, and responsibilities of the central government and the Bangsamoro, respectively.

4. Normalization (25 January 2014) outlined the process of decommissioning MILF arms and demobilizing of its forces.

An executive order, endorsed by Congress, then established the Bangsamoro Transition Commission, a 15-person board comprised of seven members from the GRP and eight members from the MILF charged with drafting the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) in April 2013.

These annexes led to the 27 March 2014 signing of the formal peace accord, the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB).

The BBL is the key to everything. The BBL creates the legal mechanism to supersede the Organic Law that established the ARMM government (Republic Act 9054), nullify and supersede the MNLF’s 1996 peace agreement, dissolve the existing ARMM government, and hold a regional plebiscite that will establish a truly independent governing entity, the Bangsamoro. The BBL has to be approved by the Philippine Congress and upheld by the Supreme Court.

The Bangsamoro Transition Commission submitted portions of their draft of the BBL to President Aquino on 14 April 2014. The draft was signed on 20 April, although one of the government’s seven members did not sign the agreement.

On 5 July the Aquino administration returned the draft BBL to the Bangsamoro Transition Commission that rejected key provisions and “left almost nothing unchanged.” Some 70 percent of the 97-page document was either deleted or significantly revised. Of significant concern was the fact that the Aquino draft had a completely different interpretation of the issues of governance, territory, and resources that had been already agreed upon in the four annexes. The MILF was irate and rejected the government’s amendments. MILF chief negotiator Mohagher Iqbal said that he was personally hurt and offended by the government’s watered down draft of the BBL. On 11 July, the two sides met in Kuala Lumpur to hammer out an agreement, but none was reached. A week later a four-day meeting in Manila also failed to bridge the gap.

On 21 July, President Aquino spoke of a “middle ground” to break the impasse on the BBL. A summit meeting between him and MILF Chairman Murad was broached, in addition to a “cooling off period” as “significant points of differences” remained. To be fair, the government’s numerous amendments and redrafts were made to assure passage in Congress. The Government’s top negotiator Miriam Coronel-Ferrer raised concern that some of the draft BBL was unconstitutional. But the amendments are extensive and the MILF believes that the government’s watered down draft is based on a too strict interpretation of the constitution. Moreover, the MILF contends that the government is now challenging much of what had already been agreed upon in the FAB and the four annexes. The MILF is adamant that nothing already agreed upon can be re-negotiated. As the MILF wrote in an op-ed on their website:

The OP’s [Office of the President] comments on the BBL, which is essentially the position pursued by the GPH peace panel, dilutes the text and have in many instances departed from the letter and spirit of the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro (FAB) and its Annexes, which is the basis of the crafting of the BBL. Moreover, the OP adopted a very conservative interpretation of the Constitution, which is a radical departure from what the government has been saying—and promised—that the flexibility of the Constitution would enable them to implement the FAB and its Annexes. Fourth, many of the delays are caused by issues that were already settled in the FAB and its Annexes but are kept coming back and forth at the instance of the GPH, e.g., ancestral domain to ancestral domains, central to national, Bangsamoro people to Bangsamoro peoples, etc.

The two sides announced a 10-day session from 1-10 August to reach an agreement on the BBL and brought in four external lawyers to help mediate the conflict. Yet, five days into the talks, no progress had been made. The MILF’s chief negotiator, Mohagher Iqbal was blunt: “We cannot accept this proposed law as it is. We will lose face if we agree to this. Their version clearly departed from the letter and spirit of the peace agreement, which was the basis in crafting the proposed law.”By the end of the 6th day, the two sides announced that they had reached agreement on 70 percent of the 18 articles in the BBL, but that major differences still remain on governance and resource allocation.

While a compromise agreement will likely be reached, the delay does potentially create future problems. The longer it is delayed, the more ill-will is garnered, including cease fire violations. But the real issue is the calendar. Although there is no sunset clause in the October 2012 Framework Agreement or the March 2014 CAB, the MILF has warned of a “tightening timeline.” The goal was to have the BBL approved by May at the latest and submitted to Congress for the start of their second session. At the beginning of August, there is still an impasse.

Moreover, if the BBL gets to Congress, it will take time to review, debate, and hopefully approve the BBL. The goal was to have Congressional approval by the end of 2014 or very early 2015 at the latest. On the positive side, Senate President Francisco Drillon has promised to make the BBL a legislative priority once it gets to Congress, but it still has to get on the docket. President Aquino asked Congress to pass the BBL by the end of 2014 in his 28 July State of the Nation address, though dodging the fact that a final draft had not been concluded: “We are currently improving the Bangsamoro Basic Law… [that is] just and acceptable to all.”

It is very possible that Congress will not approve the agreement or key provisions of it. There are many opponents to it. Although President Aquino’s party and allies control a majority of the house, he is weaker with low poll ratings and three separate impeachment charges against him. Any further amendments made would necessitate further negotiations with the MILF. Additionally, even if Congress passes the BBL, a plebiscite must then be organized and held across seven provinces and multiple cities.

2016 is also a key date because the incumbent ARMM government expired on 30 June 2013. The whole idea was that they would simply not run a new election. With the establishment of the Bangsamoro pushed beyond June 2013, it may be hard to dissolve a democratically elected body. Moreover, under the Annex on Transitional Arrangements and Modalities, the Bangsamoro Transition Council is supposed to be replaced by elected officials by 2016.

All of this really must be done in 2015, before the President’s term expires in June 2016. Although there are political realities, ideally, much of the implementation will be concluded before the presidential campaign begins in earnest in 2015. As the MILF warned in a 1 January 2014 editorial: “By 2015 the atmosphere will change radically; the fever of the 2016 presidential election will begin to spread its divisive and paralyzing effects. Expect switching of party affiliations and heightened bickering among politicians.” The implementation of the peace agreement is going to be hard enough with a lame duck president. Thus time is of the essence.

III. Spoiler Alert: The MNLF

The negotiations over the BBL become even more complex when one factors in the role of the MNLF.

Back in 1997, Misuari was infuriated that the government was beginning talks with the MILF. “The ink of the pen we used in signing the final peace agreement between the government and the MNLF has not even dried and here comes another peace effort with another group,”a ranting Misuari said in 1997. The MNLF could never accept the MILF as an independent group and more to the point, one with a larger armed force that at its peak controlled more territory than the MNLF.

Another factor is the ethno-linguistic rivalry. Though both the MNLF and the MILF claim to be the vanguard of the “Bangsamoro,”there is no Moro ethnic group. The Muslim regions of the southern Philippines have nine different ethno-linguistic groups riddled with chauvinistic rivalries. Today the MNLF is almost completely dominated by ethnic Tausugs. The MILF is dominated by Maguindanaons and Maranao and has some Yaccan members in Basilan, but almost no presence in the Sulu archipelago. The MNLF presence in central Mindanao is residual.

In 2007, when the Memorandum of Understanding on Ancestral Domain was close to being reached, the MNLF was incensed. Rather than joining the talks, the MNLF demanded that the government participate in “tripartite talks” in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, under OIC auspices, to revisit the 1996 Tripoli Accord and compel the government to fully implement the agreement. The GRP all but refused to attend and told the MNLF that such talks would be pointless until a peace pact with the MILF was signed.

This has really divided the MNLF. A few leaders, especially those based in central Mindanao, tended to support the peace process with the MILF, confident that they would receive further concessions from the government. Misuari’s supporters in Sulu could not countenance Maguindanaon leadership, and rejected the MILF peace process despite a 2012 accord brokered by the OIC.

To further complicate matters, the MNLF mistrusts Malaysia, which has played a central role in the GRP-MILF peace talks. This dates back to the 1963 annexation of Sabah and the establishment of the state of Malaysia. The MNLF, which includes the former Sultanate of Sulu, believes that Sabah is rightfully theirs, that it was leased and not ceded to the British North Borneo Company. The MILF, on the other hand, have close ties with Malaysia, which has been the facilitator of the peace process and have accepted Malaysian ownership of Sabah; they certainly have never publicly challenged it. In early 2013, Tausug gunmen under the leadership of the self-proclaimed Sultan of Sulu, made armed incursions into Sabah.

In July 2013, Misuari – who speaks of himself in the 3rd person and includes himself in the pantheon of great revolutionaries – declared the founding of the “Bangsamoro Republik”, which exists only in his head. In September 2013, Misuari was so irate about being ignored by the government that he launched an attack on communities in Zamboanga that left scores dead, 180 people taken hostage, and 15,000 displaced people living in absolute squalor.

The MILF-MNLF dispute is driven by ego and ethnic chauvinism. The MNLF believes that anything that the MILF negotiates will disadvantage them, and opportunities for graft and government contracts will flow to their rivals. But they are not wrong about one thing: the BBL supersedes and nullifies Republic Act 9054, the Organic Law on the ARMM, and their own 1996 Tripoli Accord. That is a tough pill to swallow for their enlarged Tausug egos.

The MNLF was against the October 2012 Framework Agreement between the GRP and MILF, and in December 2012, the MNLF filed a suit at the Supreme Court to invalidate the agreement. It refused to join the Bangsamoro Transition Commission. Although one senior MNLF member did attend the 27 March 2014 signing of the peace agreement, there was not much of a public endorsement. The MNLF continue to rail on about the tripartite talks, refusing to acknowledge that the train has left the station. The BBL will give the MNLF more than they ever got in 1996; it will certainly benefit the Moro, the people the MNLF claim to represent, more than what Misuari achieved in 1996. But the MNLF would rather spoil the peace process.

And it is more than just ego, ideology, and historical legacy at stake. MNLF communities that were ceded land in arms-to-farms deals in 1996 have been fighting off encroachments by MILF combatants in Central Mindanao. There have been four major encounters in 2014 alone that have forced government forces to intercede.

Beyond the OIC’s efforts, there have been multiple attempts to get the two organizations to reach an agreement, but they have always failed. Presidential Advisor on the Peace Process, Ging Deles, has tried to convince MNLF members that the peace process is “inclusive,” and not just for the MILF. But most of the MNLF views the MILF accord with a mixture of condescension and suspicion.

On 8 January 2014, the MILF issued an editorial on their website imploring the MNLF to join them, and that the BBL would include the best and most workable aspects of the MNLF’s previous accords.

The only real and desirable thing now is that we produce the best BBL for the future Bangsamoro Government. This law is not for the MILF; it is for our people as a whole. We appeal to our brothers from the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) to come to grip with reality that during the current Aquino administration, the only viable and pursued peace track is the one with the MILF.

The MILF have tried to appeal to reason, arguing that in addition to the existing ARMM region (Basilan, Maguindanao, Lanao del Sur, Sulu, and Tawi-Tawi), the expanded Bangsamoro will also include Isabela City in Basilan, Cotabato City, six towns in Lanao del Norte, and 39 of 208 barangays in North Cotabato. The MNLF contends that if the plebiscite had not been rigged back in 1996, these regions would already be part of the ARMM, and under their control.

Even the Annex on Wealth Sharing, which gives the Moros 75 percent of tax revenues and proceeds from mineral exploration –far more than the 1996 accord –was not enough to change the minds of the MNLF. The MNLF continues to organize against the MILF. On 14 February, when the Bangsamoro Transition Commission held a town hall meeting in Zamboanga, they were booed off the stage by organized demonstrators and later, being snubbed by the city’s mayor.

In late June 2014, MNLF factions came together and tried to agree on getting behind a single leader. Sadly, they opted for Misuari, who is hiding in Sulu after MNLF combatants led by Habier Malik took up arms and killed 9 civilians, took more than 100 hostage and used many as human shields, and displace nearly 100,000 in Zamboanga in September 2013. He has since been implicated in the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG)’s spate of kidnappings from eastern Sabah in Malaysia.

The MNLF leadership, nonetheless, is starting to act more constructively. They have agreed to attend another coordinating mechanism established in 2010, the Bangsamoro Coordination Forum, but which has been largely defunct. They have asked that the BBL and future documents reference the original 1976 Tripoli Agreement and the 1996 accord.

The OIC is responsible for any change in attitude. The OIC is trying to harmonize the MNLF and MILF agreements with the GRP. But the MNLF has been stung that the OIC has not come out completely in their corner on this one. There were recent pledges of support for the MILF and BBL from the MNLF out of Jeddah, but similar pledges in the past have never been implemented back home.

The MNLF have an added reason for concern. The MILF is working hard to transition itself into a political party in order to contest elections in 2016. That will give the MILF a significant organizational advantage over the MNLF, which never really made the transition and remains in a post-revolutionary organizational malaise. In April 2014, the MILF announced the founding of the United Bangsamoro Justice Party. Though the MILF insists that the party will be inclusive and open to anyone, it is for now, very much under the control of the MILF’s Central Committee and should be expected to represent the institutional interests of the MILF.

The MILF were better organized on the battlefield, and are now poised to be more organized politically. Sadly, the parliamentary government was chosen specifically to entice the MNLF. (In the Annex on Power Sharing, roughly 50 parliamentarians would elect a chief minister.) The geographical representation strongly favors the MNLF in Basilan, Sulu, and Tawi Tawi. Were the MNLF to get its act together, it would have significant representation in the Bangsamoro government.

In sum, Misuari will never be able to check his ego and get on board, but beyond a handful of his most die-hard supporters, there are enough MNLF commanders who may realize that there is far more to gain, both personally and for the good of their constituents, by joining the current peace process. Whether through inducements or external pressure from Indonesia, Malaysia, and the OIC, a critical mass must be brought on board. But MNLF linkages to the Abu Sayyaf, which continues to engage in wanton massacres, must be fully severed. And that will be difficult as Misuari’s top lieutenant Habier Malik has deep ties to the ASG in Jolo. Sadly, intra-Moro rivalries are the greatest impediment to peace. Leadership is desperately needed.


The third factor in the peace process is the growth of the BIFF. In 2007-2008, several MILF commanders rampaged following President Arroyo’s rejection of the draft peace accord and the Supreme Court’s subsequent rejection of it. They were always the most critical of Murad’s leadership and the peace process. In 2010-11, several commanders under the leadership of Ustadz Ameril Umbra Kato, a Saudi-trained cleric, broke away and formed the BIFF. From 2010-2013, they were irritants. The organization was small and they had few resources and weapons. Their men were less disciplined and less well trained. Much of what they did was predatory, preying on local villagers in central Mindanao to pay revolutionary taxes. In 2011 Kato suffered a stroke. Day to day operations is now in the hands of two lieutenants, Ustadz Muhaiden Animbang and Ustadz Karialan.

In 2014, the BIFF became more active. They are not an existential threat to the state, but they do make the peace process harder to implement and they have roundly rejected MILF entreaties. As the BIFF spokesman Abu Misry Mama said: “They can continue with what they plan to do, while we continue with our struggle for Bangsamoro independence. We can’t join in that on-going peace process.”

Since January 2014, the BIFF have been implicated in seven major IED attacks, with five more IEDs defused by security forces, several grenade attacks, three attacks on hardened military bases, at least 15 major and sustained firefights with security forces, and an arson attack on a Del Monte plantation that led to P30 million in damages. The most recent encounter, on 20 July, a simultaneous assault on two AFP positions, led to the death of four BIFF members and the wounding of eight civilians, two soldiers, and two rebels. Casualties related to BIFF attacks are not many, but the BIFF does remain a pervasive threat to peace and security in central Mindanao. These attacks led to the death of at least four soldiers and the wounding of 21 soldiers and 17 civilians.

The BIFF has more bravado than brains or military prowess. When engaged they take significant losses, losses which should be unsustainable. In 2014, according to media reports, some 97 BIFF rebels have been killed and many wounded. In a five-day defense of their main base area, they lost roughly 50 men. Yet, due to the fact that there are many easily manipulated, unemployed young men with no future at their disposal, the BIFF is able to fill its ranks. They do not have to be militarily proficient, they simply have to be persistent in their ability to sow violence and undermine the peace process.

The GRP insists that the 1997 ceasefire with the MILF does not apply to the BIFF. However, offensive operations against the BIFF necessarily go through MILF, claimed or controlled territories. Many MILF are tied to the BIFF by friendship and kinship. Clan ties run deep in Maguindanao. The AFP insists that they coordinate all operations against the BIFF with the MILF, but this often takes away the element of surprise, as many MILF tip off BIFF commanders. The MILF argue that recent operations have not been coordinated and have been extremely provocative: “This nature of uncoordinated movement can trigger untoward incidents and worse, fierce encounter between the government and MILF forces,” warned an MILF CCCH member. The potential for MILF to get caught in the crossfire and fight back in self-defense is large. This is more likely as the AFP is now holding onto all camps captured from the BIFF, despite the fact that they are all in MILF-claimed territory. This security environment may make the MILF’s willingness to surrender their arms less palatable and adds to the distrust with the prolonged BBL negotiations.

The BIFF in itself is too small and too weak to serve as a spoiler to the peace process. The real threat posed by the BIFF is that they will attract disaffected MILF combatants who fail to reap any peace dividend once the BBL is passed and an autonomous region is established.

V. And Let’s Not Forget About DDR

The final factor is the success of the disarmament, demobilization, and rehabilitation component of the peace process. The MILF claims to have around 11,000 men under arms. That was a high estimate, and the quality and equipment of the MILF combatants varied greatly from one base command to the next. In central Mindanao, many were well armed, uniformed, and trained. In Zamboanga, or eastern Mindanao, they were less disciplined, poorly equipped, and engaged in more extortion and kidnapping.

The government did not make the MNLF surrender their weapons in 1996. Around 2,000 MNLF were integrated into the PNP or the AFP. Most were simply demobilized and kept their weapons, allowing many in Sulu to fill the ranks of the Abu Sayyaf or supply the underground arms market. Despite the 1996 peace accord Sulu remained exceptionally lawless.

The government is determined not to let this happen again. A key provision in the October 2012 Framework Agreement calls for the demobilization of the MILF and the surrender of their weapons. On 25 January 2014, the two sides reached an agreement on the phased decommissioning of their weapons.

Under the normalization annex, the MILF will not surrender their arms but rather, put them “beyond use,”under independent third party monitoring. The International Decommissioning Body, comprised of foreigners as well as Philippine and MILF appointed individuals, will develop a plan to canton the weapons.

While the leadership acknowledges that disarmament of weapons is an essential step in the peace process, will the rank and file agree? And what happens to the MILF combatants? Some will form the nucleus of an internal police force in the Bangsamoro. But it is unlikely that there will be much more than 1,000-2,000 personnel. Most will simply be demobilized, which for most, simply means a life of relative poverty in subsistence agriculture. There is not a huge peace dividend that will be shared by many. The government is trying to offer some sweeteners, including a general amnesty, college scholarships for the children of MILF personnel, job training, and national health insurance.

In a region that has been plagued by crime and lawlessness, where kidnapping for ransom and extortion are growth industries, the voluntary surrender of weapons is not going to be an easy sell. The government and MILF announced that an international team from Switzerland, Turkey, Brunei, and Norway would oversee disarmament, but no one should be overly optimistic about their success. MILF units firmly under the command of the Central Committee will likely voluntarily disarm, but many base commanders are quite autonomous and may not feel bound by the disarmament provisions.

The MILF agreed that they would open up six of their base camps (Camp Abu Bakar, Camp Omar, Camp Badar, all in Maguindanao; Camp Bilal, on the border of Lanao del Norte and Lanao del Sur; Camp Rajamudah in North Cotabato; and Camp Bushra in Lanao del Sur) and turn them into disarmed peace and development communities. So far this has not happened, but the MILF seems committed to doing so once the BBL is approved.

VI. Conclusion

The MILF and government have come so far with more than 40 rounds of negotiations over the span of 17 years. The political will on both sides has enabled hard choices and meaningful concessions to be made for the sake of peace. Yet there remain numerous challenges. This paper focused on just four: the legal impasse over the BBL and the tyranny of the timeline, the frustration and growing mistrust on the part of MILF commanders and the MNLF-MILF rivalry, the BIFF, and decommissioning of weapons and demobilization. Each one of these is a challenge in itself and will require continued energy and political will.

Of course there are more obstacles to peace. There are opponents to the peace process within the Philippine Congress, who view the Bangsamoro as unconstitutional and local Christian leaders in Mindanao who have thwarted the peace process in the past. There is less international interest and money to support the peace process than there was a decade ago. Fewer resources have been earmarked for economic rehabilitation and the demobilization and rehabilitation of MILF combatants. The MILF has enormous shortfalls in human capital despite years of training. The infrastructure of Mindanao remains woefully inadequate. Corruption is endemic and the rule of law is weak. The new Bangsamoro government will have only the most limited experience in governing and political institutions will be new and weak. There is significant crime in the region. There will be more resources for the new government, but everyone is expecting their cut of the “peace dividend.”Will investments be made wisely? Will natural resource wealth be invested in a public trust fund or squandered in failed projects or corruption? And on top of everything else, the region is plagued by rido, or clan wars that can last for decades.

These challenges are real and very daunting, but the costs of not succeeding are simply too great. Mindanao is extremely wealthy in terms of natural resources and could be an engine of growth for the Philippines. Mindanao sits on two-fifths of national reserves of key minerals as well as an estimated 411 million barrels of oil and 2.3 billion cubic feet of gas. Even if full hostilities do not resume, the pervasive insecurity and insecurity over the region’s future legal standing will limit investment and growth.

Dr. Zachary Abuza is a professor and analyst of Southeast Asian politics and security. He has lived and traveled extensively throughout the region. Dr. Abuza consults widely and is a frequent commentator in the press. He holds an MALD and PhD from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.

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