Bangsamoro Peace Deal for Mindanao: Where’s the Peace?

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Last week, amid considerable fanfare, the Philippine government announced the signing of (yet another) historic peace deal, the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB), with the rebel group Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), a breakaway group from the secessionist Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) in Mindanao. The agreement would create an autonomous Bangsamoro political entity that is bigger than the current Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao. The term Bangsamoro does not appear in the constitutional provision on Muslim Mindanao, but supposedly refers to the Muslim population in Mindanao, also known as the Moro. Brokered by Malaysia, the CAB follows a long list of failed peace deals to settle the armed conflict in Mindanao, which spans hundreds of years.

From the beginning of the peace process, however, all has not been well. Immediately after the Framework Agreement for the CAB was signed two years ago, it was met by strong opposition from constitutionalists, other armed groups, indigenous peoples, and concerned citizens nationwide, and was followed by two major armed conflicts with the MNLF, in Sabah, Malaysia and in the city of Zamboanga in the southern Philippines.

The first red flag appears on reading the parties to the agreement: The deal has been made only with the MILF, and excludes the secessionist MNLF, private armies, and paramilitary civilian groups and militias roaming the area. It also excludes the heirs of the Sultanate of Sulu, which ruled the territory as a thriving empire in ancient times, and the indigenous tribes whose rights are protected by a UN convention and who also claim the territory as their ancestral domain. In rejecting the peace deal, the armed followers of the sultanate in August of last year attacked Sabah in Malaysia, which it tried to reclaim. Sabah is being leased by Malaysia as successor to the British North Borneo Company, which leased it from the sultanate in 1878. Malaysia claims it was ceded, yet it continues to make annual lease payments to the sultanate.

The MNLF supported the sultanate’s followers and quickly proclaimed Mindanao independent, with Nuri Misuari as president of the Bangsamoro Republik, the proposed federal state that encompasses the whole island grouping of Mindanao, including non-Muslim provinces and cities, Sabah, and Sarawak in Malaysia’s Borneo. Malaysia retaliated with air strikes that prompted the rebels to retreat into the jungle. A crackdown on hundreds of Filipino migrant workers who support Malaysia’s oil and petroleum industry followed, with some fleeing back to Mindanao. Ironically, Malaysia had previously supplied the rebels with arms and munitions, for use against the Philippine government. A book published by the Office of Strategic and Special Studies, the think tank of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, suggested that Malaysia is using a deal with the MILF to suppress the MNLF, which Malaysia had previously funded and trained.

Months later, a faction of the MNLF led by Misuari launched another attack, this time in Zamboanga, a southern city with a predominantly Christian population, and took hostages. According to the city mayor, Isabelle Climaco-Salazar, “The main target by the MNLF in encroaching Zamboanga City is to raise their banner of independence at city hall.” About 200 people were killed, tens of thousands displaced and thousands of homes destroyed by fire. Arrest warrants for rebellion and human rights violations were issued against Misuari and MNLF leaders.

A second red flag appears to lie in the lack of provision for total disarmament of the MILF. The CAB calls for the decommissioning of weapons before a joint international and national group. Yet four commanders of the MILF, with about 4,000 followers, have refused to accept that requirement and returned to the MNLF fold, vowing to resume their secession bid. For its part, the MNLF views the peace deal between the Philippine government and the MILF as a violation of the 1996 peace agreement brokered by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.

Another serious problem is the legal framework itself. The CAB is almost a carbon copy of the failed peace deal of 2008, the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD), signed by then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo with the MILF, which created a new juridical entity similar to the CAB. It was struck down by the Supreme Court that same year, on the grounds that it was unconstitutional. The court may well vote the same way on the CAB. Both the CAB and the failed MOA-AD provide for the expansion of the current Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) embodied in the Philippine Constitution. The proposed territory consists of the current autonomous region and encroaches partly on non-Muslim regions. Blood feuds among the Muslims often spill over into areas that are predominantly Christian. Including the latter in the proposed Bangsamoro territory is expected to produce more bloodshed and heighten the conflict between Muslims and Christians

In the MOA-AD case, the Philippine Supreme Court also ruled that the president does not have the authority to delegate the power to create a political entity. The court additionally noted that there had been no prior consultation with the affected areas. Father Joaquin Bernas S.J., a leading constitutionalist, noted that a memorandum of agreement cannot cede territory of a sovereign state that requires a constitutional amendment. That issue persists in the present peace deal. The chair of the Senate Committee on Constitutional Amendments, Revision of Codes and Laws, Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago, points out that the provision violates the principle of constitutional supremacy and that the new political entity is actually a sub-state with exclusive powers, including matters of authority and jurisdiction that run contrary to the Constitution. The Transition Commission created under the peace deal is meanwhile tasked with amending the Philippine Constitution as necessary to accommodate the peace deal, which again assumes a power that the president does not possess.

All of which raises a question: Where’s the peace?

Paula Defensor Knack is a former assistant secretary for Lands and Legislative Affairs at the Philippine Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

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