The road to peace in Mindanao in the Philippines, has been a long and complicated struggle. The signing of the Bangsamoro framework agreement on the 15th of October 2012 between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) is a historic step towards a sustainable peace. The Mindanao conflict has been one of the world’s bloodiest and after four decades of on and off conflict, the civil war has cost approximately 150 000 lives.
The Bangsamoro framework agreement is a commitment by the MILF and the Philippine government to establish a new political entity in Muslim Mindanao. It took sixteen years of negotiations before an agreement was reached and the new Bangsamoro agreement will change the political landscape of the country quite drastically. The Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) will be replaced with the new Bangsamoro region that, to some extent, will govern itself.
The Bangsamoro region will for example have jurisdiction over Shari’ah courts where Muslims can settle non-criminal cases between each other. The Bangsamoro will also be able to create its own sources of revenue. That includes legislations such as collections of taxes. The government on the other hand retains control of defence and external security issues as well as the foreign policy. They will also keep control of common market and global trade, coinage and monetary policies, citizenship and the postal services.
At the end of 2012 President Benigno Aquino III signed an executive order creating the Transition Commission. The 15-member Transition Commission will craft the new Bangsomoro Basic Law, where the MILF chooses eight of the members and the government chooses seven. The Transition Commission drafts the legislations on matters such as power and wealth-sharing while the MILF will decommission its armed forces.
There are a number of steps and issues that need to be addressed before the new entity can replace ARMM. These further negotiations will make or break the peace deal. Even though the Bansamoro agreement is a historic deal, it is not unprecedented. Three earlier deals have been wrecked for a number of different reasons. It is very difficult to say whether the peace will hold or not. But both parties seem quite satisfied with the agreement and the ongoing negotiations.
The civil society and experts from other countries have played a huge role to get the framework agreement signed. After the breakdown of the 2008 negotiations, the MILF chairman declared the need of an International Contact Group (ICG) with the mandate to attend and observe the negotiations and also work as an adviser. The parties preferred that the ICG would include countries from the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC), the European Union (EU) and accredited INGOs.
One of the key problems that the region faces is to stop potential violent uprisings. During 2011 a former MILF commander raised his own army and established the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Movement (BIFM). In August 2012 BIFM engaged in a short-lived offensive, trying to mobilise rogue parts of the MILF units. The MILF answered publicly and said that this was a threat to the peace process in Mindanao and vowed to help the Philippine security forces to deal with the problem. Another question that raises concern is how to handle Abu Sayyaf, the violent Islamic sect that’s been accused of having connections to al-Qaida.
But there are still signs of hope and the situation offers some points of optimism. Today the MILF are better equipped to transform themselves from rebels to rulers with an improved political wing with bureaucrats. President Aquino enjoys the support of his colleagues to lend weight to the process more broadly. At the same time key players who dissented from MILF in the past have shown their support for the framework agreement.
Another cause for optimism is that the civil society in the Mindanao region is far more developed today thanks to the creation of the ICG. The engagement of local and international NGOs has a huge role in the broader peace process. They are needed not only to help the dialogue between the government and the MILF, but more importantly to maintain pressure on the different actors.
Before the Bangsamoro freedom and self-determination struggle started during the 60’s the Philipines were Asia’s, second to Japan, most progressive country. Today a quarter of its people live below the poverty line.
Most scholars believe that if the peace stands, the region can start its long overdue economic growth. The Mindanao region is one of the most resource-rich and fertile parts of the country. Investors have already started looking into the region, thinking about investing in it. Another consequence of the deal is that the development aid sent to this region will drastically increase. Most important is that the longer the peace lasts, more and more people living in the region will feel confident to reinvest in their own community.
Development aid is going to be a huge part of the post-war Bangsamoro region. But there is a frustration among local population who feel they have had no say in what kind of development aid they will receive. There is a fear that the indigenous people will be left out during these negotiations, and it is vital that the issues discussed are not only the ones set by the government and MILF.
Media can also play a bigger role in the framing of the negotiations. This remarkable framework agreement has not received that much attention in the western world. In fact, the ongoing conflict has not got that much media attention at all. International attention has proved to be very successful in putting pressure on and encouraging both sides of the conflict not to abandon the negotiation table. It is not only INGOs and the ICG that can do this but also the International community and international media.